The last live gig that I attended was just before the level 3 lockdown. That seems like forever ago now, but in truth, it was only in March. Now, in the closing days of June, here I was, strolling down Karangahape Road; the home of indie music and the Creative Jazz Club. Live improvised music was back.
I can remember every moment of my last pre lockdown gig and I savoured the memories during my period of isolation. As the weeks rolled into months, I managed the interregnum well, but the absence of live music cut deep. I missed its sweet voice in my ear, so music, please never leave me again.
By a strange coincidence, the last band I heard, the one on that March night, was the Michal Martyniuk Trio. Now, here they were, performing the very first post lockdown gig. As I dashed across K’Road to avoid the rainstorm I wondered if the weather would affect the turnout. The restaurants and the streets were eerily empty, but huddled in the stairwell of Anthology were people shedding raincoats and talking excitedly. Long before the gig started the club had filled to capacity.
The trio was now a quartet, having added 2020 Tui Award-winning guitarist Dixon Nacey to their number. It turned out to be a match made in heaven. Four highly rated and award-nominated artists merged into one killer unit.
After months of being deprived of live gigs, the musicians were pumped and similar energy flowed from the audience. When expectations are this high, what stretches ahead, is a dangerous high wire act. Also, the piano had been idle for months, lonely and unloved. In truth, the instrument is a difficult beast, but Martyniuk soon found his way to its heart and he coaxed it to sing again. Harnessing unruly forces is the anvil on which good improvisers produce their best work.
Most of the tunes were Martyniuk’s and although his music is quite different from Nacey’s, the contrast worked nicely. Martyniuk’s post-bop European voicings and memorable melodies were gifted an interesting edge. Nacey’s tunes, which often feature surprising twists and rhythmic complexity, were turned in fresh directions. Out of contrast comes the best Jazz and this was truly the sound of surprise.
Michal Martyniuk Quartet: Michal Martyniuk (piano), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The clip recorded is Martyniuks Polish unit (not the Auckland band as reviewed above)
As New Zealand adjusted to the first easing of the pandemic restrictions, Leo Coghini, a young Wellington musician released a set of three improvised solo piano albums. They were recorded at studio 310, New Zealand School of Music, Victoria University and all on a single day.
The albums titled ’Wellington Solos’ were released on the SkyDeck label and an immediate drawcard was the gorgeous brooding cover art. When a package looks that good, there is the lure of promise, and in that spirit, I sat down, closed my eyes and played all three.
As I listened through, it became obvious that these albums were something unique. Only the bravest of improvisers record abstract solo piano albums and those who do so are generally seasoned musicians with established avant-garde credentials. Coghini is modest, perhaps even shy, but what confidence he mustered on that day in November, and how astonishing the result.
As I evaluated the material it was impossible not to bring Jarretts 70’s explorations to mind; the joyful free improvisation built on delicate motifs, the way the tunes begin; unwind, are reconstructed and concluded. When you consider that this is Coghini’s first recording in his own name and that he is still an undergraduate, it is all the more impressive. You can feel his absorption, but he fully engages. This not a musician abstracting for mere abstraction’s sake; here there is clarity of purpose and the images he conjures are accessible to the listener.
In a project like this, the nakedness of the piano is exposed and a recording must capture the pivot between instrument and artist. It should achieve that without the hand of the recording technicians being discernible. This recording achieved that to perfection. The right piano in the right hands when recorded properly sings.
I first encountered Coghini in 2017 at an emerging artists gig. On that occasion, his band played standards and I noticed his gentle swing feel. Later I heard him in a different context, as a sideman on the award-winning ‘Fearless Music’ album by Umar Zakaria. By then a confident and adventurous Coghini had emerged and after this latest offering, we can be certain that he will continue to impress.
In a month where sad tidings constantly emerged from the Jazz diaspora, we lost one of our own. Phil Broadhurst was not claimed by the virus, as so many were, but by a cruel and familiar disease. As he battled through his various treatments he played on regardless. Seldom wavering, as he composed new tunes; organised concerts or met friends for coffee, and all the while managing to put us at ease. Phil had a gift for that. He was dignity personified.
During his last concert at the Auckland Jazz & Blues Club, he bantered with a capacity audience while delivering a formidable set or two. Beside him on the bandstand were his loyal friends from the London Bar days and never far away, his beloved Julie. I suspect that the last gig took all that he had, but you wouldn’t know it. During hard times jazz musicians shine brightest and Phil did.
He was well established on the Jazz scene long before he left the UK for New Zealand. Upon arrival he quickly made his mark. In clubs and bars and in the recording studio, in education and in broadcasting, and all through the lean years he kept the flame burning. Now we mourn along with his family for the music not yet formed and denied us, knowing that the scene will be poorer for his passing.
Many years ago as I was taking my first tentative steps in documenting the local Jazz scene, Phil phoned me. He made an offer that no Jazz writer could refuse.
‘How would you like to spend time with Bennie Maupin and Dick Oatts’ he asked? A phrase from a review of Bitches Brew flashed across my consciousness, ‘Maupin, who patrols the lower register like a barracuda’. I uttered a strangulated sound (which translated as yes) and in fact I got to spend two days with them. It was a kindness that I will never forget.
I learned two important things that weekend. Never ask a doubling musician why they are equally proficiant on seven reeds & winds. I was told sharply that the secret was, practice until you drop and then do it seven times more. The second thing I learned was that Phil was an enabler. He put people in situations where they could grow.
Last year, Phil invited me to observe and photograph his quintet as they recorded ‘Positif’, his fourth Rattle album. I have posted images and a link to that and his other albums. Today all Bandcamp revenue goes back to the artists. There is no better way to celebrate the life of an artist than by buying their works. Go to Phil Broadhurst Bandcamp.
Phil was a powerful presence on the New Zealand Jazz scene and we will miss him dearly. Over the years his output has been considerable and his Rattle albums in particular provide us a lasting testimony. A multi awards winner, a friend, but now we must wait until the lockdown is over for his final parade. Until then, and ever after, let his tunes and recordings remind us. And beyond that, the teachers of tomorrow, the ones who Phil mentored are bringing on another generation of improvisers. Perhaps, that is the ultimate legacy.
The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. There Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through tohttps://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association
At the beginning of the pandemic, it all seemed so far away. As of today 1/3 of the world’s population are in lockdown and New Zealand with them. A busy South Pacific Island was suddenly disconnected from the world; adrift except for an undersea fibre-optic cable. As confusion dominated the interim period, aircraft were grounded without warning and among the travellers unable to proceed was a touring musician; an improvising exile. Now, we are all exiles from our former lives and major cities have fallen silent.
I refer above to the Polish Pianist Michal Martyniuk, here on holiday and about to return to Poland. Luckily, he has family here and a reason to feel safe in New Zealand. With East European travel curtailed, he organised a gig at the only place he could find, a showroom. This was the last gig I attended before the curtain of isolation fell and it is therefore special to me.
The venue was the Lewis Eady piano showroom with space for only a dozen chairs, the audience encompassed by a circle of Steinways. Beautiful instruments all; dark polished lacquer and keys gleaming like fashion-models teeth. We were all beginners at social distancing and a few random hugs occurred. After greeting friends, I approached Martyniuk to ask about the format.
‘Eadys have provided me with their finest Steinway B and the acoustics here are so good that the piano will not be mic’d. Nor will the bass or drums naturally’.
Although the floors were marble, the soft curtains and the cavalcade of pianos soaked up any liveliness. I was able to record the entire concert (mostly Martyniuk originals plus three standards). When leaving home I had realised that I had no video equipment ready, so I grabbed a Zoom recorder and a high-end Rhode mic. They sat on a wooden chair a metre away from the piano.
Cameron McArthur and Ron Samsom completed the line-up; both players having a long association with Martyniuk, accompanying him at Java Jazz and on an album. A few days ago I uploaded the material, savoured the experience. I might not experience live music for quite some time to come. This recording may be unmixed but it sounds special to me.
Michal Martyniuk Trio (NZ). Michael Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums). recent album Resonance – michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com
The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances cancelled, get their music heard around the globe. There Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear it Here community blog. for more, click through tohttps://news.jazzjournalists.org/catagory/jazz-on-lockdown/
My normal weekly post has been sitting in my ‘drafts’ folder for over two weeks. Since writing it, my attention has been focused elsewhere. Although in isolation, I am not referring to my personal situation but to the J JA‘Jazz on Lockdown’ project which has rallied Jazz Journalists from every corner of the globe and asked them to respond collectively to the pandemic. My colleagues and I are now working together using an online workspace and our individual blogs may be delayed. Those who are able to have volunteered to join an editing working group as we grapple with the challenges of a fast-moving situation. This is a Jazz Journalists Association project aimed at keeping improvised music current and to get updates to and from countries on lockdown.
Because of that, Spain first captured our attention. When the virus hit, a popular Jazz musician succumbed and soon every resident was under lockdown. As the virus spread, so did our focus and within days the problem had reached every country. One by one the great Jazz centres like New York closed and the iconic and much-loved Jazz clubs closed with them. When the city that never sleeps locks down, you know that you have urgent work to do. Jazz Journalists are not going to sit around moping; nor will we restrict ourselves to watching another era’s YouTube clips. It is the current musicians who need us the most. We are learning new ways of working and it is our intention to direct you to live gigs or the gigs of working musicians where we can.
We need Jazz fans and Improvised alternative music fans to keep buying current albums. If there is a live-stream concert with a tip-button give them a few dollars. This is a new version of the pass-the-bucket tradition which goes back to the earliest days of Jazz. Many of the live-streamed concerts will be free, some could be pay-per-view. Buy their music and on Bandcamp or their website if possible. ‘Jazz on Lockdown’ will inform you of the links.
The week before the virus arrived was a week of plenty in Auckland, but the above-named artists did not all appear in the same band. Nor at the same gig. They probably won’t mind if you think that though. Attending Ronnies a few years ago, I caught English pianist Kit Downes at the late show. This followed a sold-out earlier show featuring Kurt Elling. I informed Downes that my write up would begin ‘Elling opens for Downes at Ronnie Scotts’. He liked that.
Arriving in a rush, as if waiting for the cooler weather came Pat Metheny, Steve Barry, Mark de Clive-Lowe, Alchemy, Callum Passells, Trudy Lyle, Simona Smirnova, and Michael Martyniuk gigs. As always, painful choices were required.
Steve Barry Trio: Barry left Auckland many years ago; settling in Sydney and returning yearly to perform. Each time he visited there were new directions on offer, highly original material and each iteration offering glimpses of lesser-known composers. His recent albums have taken him into deeper waters still, moving beyond the mainstream. For those of us who like adventurous music, they have been compelling. Two albums were released last year. The first is on Earshift Music and the second on Rattle; both available on Bandcamp.
‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ trod a path reminiscent of 60’s Bley; boldly striking out for freer territory and edging its way confidently into the classical minimalist spaces. That album was followed by ‘Hatch’ which is an astonishing album of stark pared-back beauty. It is an album pointing to new possibilities in improvised music. This concert felt more exploratory, with denser compositions and jagged Monk-like moments. He played one Monk tune halfway through and this reinforced the connection.
Mark de Clive-Lowe: It was barely six months ago since de Clive-Lowe passed through Auckland during his ‘Heritage’ album release tour. He attracted capacity audiences then (and now). After years of living away from his home city, he is now reconnected to the Auckland improvised music scene and we hope that he will maintain that link. Having a room like ‘Anthology’ certainly helped, as its capacity is significant. During this tour, he treated us to a wider range of his innovative music; especially his Church Sessions. Showcasing the genre-busting underground gigs that he began in LA and which spread like wildfire throughout the world; giving fresh impetus to the improvised music scene and the endless possibilities looking forward.
On tour with de Clive-Lowe was the respected LA drummer Brandon Combs. A drummer who can hold down a groove beat while working it every which way; able to interact intuitively with the electronic beats generated by de Clive-Lowe as he dances across the multitude of keyboards and devices. Together with locals Nathan Haines and Marika Hodgson, they created wizardry of the highest order. This artist is the wizard of hybridity and we are happy to remind people that he came from this city. Live re-mix, dance, groove beats, jazz, whatever: it has all been captured, mined for its essence and released for our pleasure.
Alchemy Live: This was the first live performance of the ‘Alchemy’ project. It followed the successful release of the eponymous album which got good airplay and deserves ongoing attention. The concept was the brainchild of producer Mark Casey and its realisation by the musical director and Jazz pianist Kevin Field. The pianist has created some truly fine Jazz charts and the assemblage of musicians he brought into the project brought it home in spades. The tunes have been selected from the New Zealand songbook. Perennially popular and chart-busting classics like ‘Royals’ and ‘Glad I’m not a Kennedy’. Artists as diverse as Herbs, Split Enz and Phil Judd. Because of mounting travel restrictions, several of the artists on the recording were replaced for the live gig. New to us, was Jazz student vocalist Rachel Clarke and she won us over that night.
Pat Metheny: This concert had been long anticipated and it was only the second time that he has appeared in New Zealand. In spite of the looming health scare, the town hall was packed. This was a retrospective of sorts as it featured his best-known tunes. Who would not want to hear a fresh version of Song for Balboa or the joyous ‘Have you Heard’? I loved the concert but two quibbles. I didn’t like the way the piano was miked and mixed except for one number. Gwilym Simcock is a great pianist. It would be nice to hear him in a trio and with an acoustically mic’d up Steinway. The star of the show (Pat aside) was bass player Linda May Han Oh. How stunningly melodic and how sensitive she was in each situation she encountered; solos to die for.
Simona Smirnova: This was Smirnova’s third trip to Auckland. By the time she had arrived in the country, people were becoming cautious about attending crowded gigs. She still attracted a good audience and those who did come were delighted with her show. The setlist was similar to her last year’s show but in the bigger Anthology venue, it sounded stronger. Smirnova interacts extremely well with audiences and they respond in kind. Her beautiful ballads (accompanied on the Lithuanian Kanklas) and her upbeat Slavonic styled scatting were the highlights. Her material is delightfully exotic, being an original blend of Jazz, Lithuanian folk music and beyond. Her voice is simply beautiful and her zither playing beguiling. She was accompanied by Auckland veterans Alan Brown on keys, Cam McArthur on bass and this time, Jono Sawyer on drums & vocals). I have some nice footage which says it best.
Michal Martyniuk: The last gig I attended before isolating myself was the Michal Martyniuk Trio. I did not have video equipment with me but I captured the concert in high-quality audio. I will post on that shortly and will be adding sound clips. You can purchase Michal Martyniuk’s albums at michalmartyniuk.bandcamp.com His ‘Resonance’ album review can be viewed on this site if you enter his name in the search button.
‘Jazz On Lockdown‘ posts will now move to the principle page and the Jazz on Lockdown page will feature information and links from around the world as the information comes in.
The lockdowns won’t stop jazz! To assist musicians who’ve had performances canceled, get their music heard around the globe. The Jazz Journalists Association created a Jazz on Lockdown: Hear It Here community blog. For more click through to https://news.jazzjournalists.org/category/jazz-on-lockdown/.
The artists featured were:
Steve Barry (piano), Jacques Emery (bass), Alex Inman Hislop (drums),
Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys), Brandon Combes (drums), Marika Hodgson (bass), Nathan Haines (saxophones).
Marjan Nelson (v) Allana Goldsmith (v) Chelsea Prastiti (v) Lou’ana Whitney (v) Rachel Clarke (v) Kevin Field (piano), Roger Manins (saxophone), Mike Booth (trumpet), Mostyn Cole (bass) Ron Samsom (drums), Stephen Thomas (drums)
Pat Metheny, Gwilym Simcock, Antonio Sanchez, Linda May Han Oh
Simona Smirnova (v, Kanklas) Alan Brown (piano, keys), Cameron McArthur (bass), Jono Sawyer (drums).
Michal Martyniuk (piano), Cameron McArthur (drums), Ron Samsom (drums).
The summer break seemed endless with its hot nights, warm breezes and parchment dry days. Nature shrivelled as the birds stopped singing and the trip to the Hi-Fi became too onerous. There is something about a prolonged heatwave that makes you both lazy and restless at the same time. This is also the time of year when Aucklands premier Jazz club takes its Christmas break and so the resumption of the gigs was happily anticipated.The first gig of the year was the Alex Ventling trio and what a great way to ease into February. Ventling is a New Zealand ex-pat, but one who settled in Switzerland many years ago. He and his fellow musicians are all from Basel, a part of the Swiss Confederation and speakers of a German dialect.I passed through there once but all that I can remember was a recommendation from a friend. Stop there if you can, Basel is a jazz city.
This was Ventling’s first gig for the CJC Creative Jazz Club and it attracted a large audience. They poured through the doors escaping the evening’s heat; needing cool and finding it. The venues piano is not without its challenges but on this night it sang sweetly. Partly because it had just been tuned but it was mainly because of Ventling’s sensitive touch. Many pianists tend toward the percussive in a larger room, but this programme required subtlety, room to breathe. The set-list tunes were well crafted and with a heavier touch, the expressiveness would have been sacrificed. We don’t get too many piano trios through and this trio operated as the best of them do. The musicians listening to each other, reacting, and playing as if they were one entity. It is almost impossible for this level of communication to occur unless a trio has been together for a time, and in this case, they were not only long term bandmates but on the last stop on the tour.
Most of the tunes were originals, but two were interesting reharmonisation of Jazz standards. For instance ‘All Blues’ which hinted at Mehldau Americana voicings;the astonishing reharm of ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’; the latter truly delightful, surprising, and decidedly edgy. The original melody cast to the four winds as new joys were plucked from the changes. The originals were captivating and especially ‘Expecting the Unexpected’ and ‘Vorfreude’. The later title, one of those uniquely precise German words meaning the joy you feel when looking forward to something. Whatever the German word is for looking back with pleasure, that was the emotion the audience was left with at gigs end. The interactions throughout were impeccable, reminding me of a Pieranunzi trio. The bass player James Kruttli and the drummer Phelan Burgoyne were as riveting as the pianist. This was a trio where your eyes and ears moved constantly from one to the other. We watched in utter absorption and for two hours we forgot the swelter looming ominously outside.
A recent album by the Alex Ventling Quartet was on sale at the door and it is stunning. ‘Alex & the Wavemakers’ has a different lineup and features a vocalist Yume Ito. This is closer to the ECM esthetic and is Jazz Art Music at its very best. The fourth track ‘Trailblazer’ was to my ears furthering the blissful journeys begun by Norma Winstone, John Tayler and Kenny Wheeler. You can find Alex Ventling on Bandcamp or at http://www.alexventling.com.
JazzLocal32.com was rated as one of the 50 best Jazz blogs in the world by Feedspot. The author is a professional member of the Jazz Journalists Association.
Steve Barry left these shores many years ago and these days Australians count him as their own. It is hardly surprising that they do because since his departure he has raked in the accolades, won numerous awards and completed a Doctorate. Given the above, we can hardly begrudge his move. Music is like water it will always find its level, no matter where the wellspring. Everyone on the New Zealand Jazz scene looks forward to Barry’s yearly trips home as he never rests on his laurels. He brings us new and diverse projects and above all he showcases innovation.
The ‘Blueprints’ Trio is a good example as it was formed primarily as a vehicle for his doctrinal compositions. For any student of pianism, these works are compelling as they combine strong elements of modern classical composition balanced against Jazz innovation. That Barry achieves this with such clarity, while never completely abandoning the history of jazz speaks strongly of his vision. Very few can achieve this without the music sounding contrived or lopsided. Barry’s compositions, although often challenging, are neither. Audiences listen and above all they smile as the music unfolds. Picking the references and enjoying the journey beyond. Those with a sense of history will hear Monk and Strayhorn; others will hear new music and neither is wrong.
The YouTube clip that I have posted illustrates this clearly as there are distinct Monkish references. When you listen closely though, you realise, that this is a twenty-first-century version and a Monk who has absorbed a whole lot of very contemporary ideas. The angular leap into ultra-modernity is abetted by his Australian bandmates; both completely at home in this adventurous new world.
With him in Auckland were the other members of the current Blueprints trio, Jacques Emery on Bass and Alex Inman-Hislop on drums. With Emery often playing arco bass and Inman Hislop splashing bold colour strokes, the distinctive vibe was complete. While this was very much Barry’s show, no one was in the background. For a copy of the latest Blueprints Trio album ‘Hatch’ go Rattle Records or to view his complete discography go to stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com/
The Steve Barry ‘Blueprints’ Trio appeared at Backbeat, 100 K’Road, for the CJC Creative Jazz Club on 10 April 2019
When David Berkman sits at a piano, any piano, he looks to be at one with the world.In the parlance of Piano Jazz, the guy is a ‘beast’ and his mastery of the instrument is astonishing. Like all pianists of repute he is accustomed to high-end pianos but when he is confronted with an upright, he still makes it sing.The last time he visited Auckland, the CJC Jazz club was located in the basement of the 1885 building. At that point, there was a Yamaha Grand on offer. Three moves on from then, the club is now in the ‘Backbeat’, a warm amenable performance space in Karangahape Road. The piano there is a Kawai upright. ‘Uprights are fine’, he said, ‘You just play more percussively’. I’m convinced that he could make a thumb piano sing or swing – and so it was on this night.
The setlist was a mix of his own tunes and a few well-placed standards. Berkman’s tunes are strong vehicles for improvisation, always melodic and by default, they tend to swing like crazy. With one exception, the standards were Berkman arrangements, and while recognisable they came across as freshly minted masterpieces. Paring the flesh away from ‘All the things’ and giving those old bones a youthful lease on life; finishing wonderfully, gently, with the tag. His Cherokee while closer to the original was also a treat, a real burner. Who dares play that these days (more’s the pity)? Only a killer pianist is who, and contained therein was history, innovation and pure joy. With him were three local musicians who he fondly referred to as his regular New Zealand band. Roger Manins on tenor, Oli Holland on Bass and Ron Samsom on drums.
As I watched him throughout the night, I pondered where he fitted in the stylistic spectrum. Of course, he can range across many styles, but the name Cedar Walton sprang to mind. Later I ran into a musician who said unprompted, ‘This guy and his approach remind me of Cedar Walton’. A musician singled out his comping for high praise. “His comping goes beyond the usual, it is elevated to a high art form. Not just supportive but shepherding you into new territory, bringing out things in your own performance that surprise you”. So all of the above and more applies to him. A drummers pianist, a great comping pianist, a hard swinger. It is therefore not surprising that he shares the bandstand with Brian Blade, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart, Jane Monheit etc. He is also a well-respected educator. Anyone who follows the New York scene will already be a fan as he’s a regular performer around the New York Clubs. For the alert, he can sometimes be caught on the Australian and New Zealand Jazz circuit. If you snooze you lose down-under. Missing gigs like this would be categorised under high crimes and misdemeanors.
He records on Palmetto and his albums are readily available. Recommended is his latest: Old Friends and New Friends – also, Self Portraits or Live at Smoke. For more information go to davidberkman.com. The gig was at Backbeat, CJC Creative Jazz Club, March 2019 – last photograph by Barry Young
The pleasure of experiencing great music in small venues is inestimable. Sure, we love it when the famous cats blow through town, rush to get our tickets for the town hall concerts, pay the hefty price tag gladly and listen; watch the tiny figures way, way down on stage. I have attended many such concerts over the years and regarded them among life’s high points, but now I am not so sure. As great as these concerts are and as amazing as the visiting musicians are, the experience is filtered through layers of complexity and as a result, one essential ingredient is often missing, that feeling of warm intimacy.
I have heard road-wise musicians talk of a virtuous feedback loop, the way artist and audience feed off each other until the music becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Large civic venues are by their very nature redactive and the end result is often a performer facing a passive sea of listeners. Anyone who has been tapped on the shoulder during a performance and been told by an usher to sit still will get my point. Sitting still and mute is difficult for seasoned Jazz lovers. We know when to hold our breath and we know not to chatter, but we also understand when to vocalise our joy or when to exhort a soloist to greater heights. And bodies will sway and feet will tap – that’s the fine point of engagement. When the music is visceral it radiates a life force and even at the most fundamental level of existence, atoms collide and shift. If it lives it moves.
Some of us, the lucky ones, have experienced an artist of international stature performing in a small cosy club. If it’s a pianist and if a very good piano is located in the venue, then it’s a recipe for unbounded enjoyment. A few days ago Barney McAll played at a sold-out venue at the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Thanks to his close friend Jonathan Crayford he stopped off for a day in Auckland on his return journey. There had been some discussion about this possibility a few months ago and JC assured me that it would happen. Because I had a prior warning I waited and when the tickets appeared I swooped like a hawk. Only the lucky few got to attend this gig.
The eye-catching online notification featured an attractive sketch and a poster which read; ‘Barney McAll plays Gospel solo piano at Freida Margolis, limited tickets available’. In the fine print was the word, Steinway. Together this spelt seismic. When you hear McAll you experience more than just music, you experience dreamscapes and multiple histories. The first thing to grasp about McAll is that he can reference many styles and genres and while this is disconcerting to some, it is an essential part of his output. Cutting edge contemporary improvised music, Orchestral Jazz, alternative popular music, standards, soul, free or Gospel. While his projects can feature any of the above styles, each is laid down with the utmost integrity and each bears his unmistakable hallmark.
What we heard were mostly Gospel hymns – the sort you would hear in a Harlem church. They were hymns, but not presented in the way you’d hear them in a New Zealand or Australian church. They were improvisational vehicles and the voicings of some old-time Jazz greats shone through. I have heard such voicings from the likes of Hank Jones and this is hardly surprising. Musicians like Jones came up through the black gospel church experience. What is uncommon, is to hear this from a white Australian musician. His eight years of playing in American Gospel churches left its mark of authenticity on him.
During the night he invited Jonathan Crayford and Bella Kalolo to join him. Crayford accompanied on piano, free improvising, while McAll played an unusual guitar-like instrument, imparting a sitar sound or prepared piano sound. Kalolo was obviously delighted to be accompanied by McAll and even though she was unamplified and therefore low volume the two of them had strong chemistry. While they approach the tunes differently, Gospel is clearly something both artists understand.
McAll also played Necter Spur from his ‘Mooroolbark’ album and ‘The Nock Code’ from his recent ‘Hearing the Blood’ album. Both albums garnered multiple awards and significant praise. Unencumbered by a band, he ranged freely over the numbers and found exquisite asides to explore in-depth. This was music to be experienced from three metres away. This was a love letter to the classic Steinway ‘D’ series and Freida Margolis was the perfect backdrop. I had mounted the camera up high and it was surrounded by tiles which brightened the sound – but that piano – those tunes and those musicians found the magic and gave us a gig to remember.
Barney McAll (Steinway D, stringed instrument), Bella Kalolo (vocals), Jonathan Crayford (Steinway D) – for McAll albums visit Extra Celestial Arts on Bandcamp.
When Michal Martyniuk left Auckland for Poland last year, it was hot on the heels of a successful appearance at Java Jazz; the biggest Jazz festival in the world. It was always on the cards that Martyniuk’s Auckland trio would fare well, as they are the epitome of an inventive, high energy unit and all of that is wrapped up in a very European sound.
While it was obvious to Kiwis and to the enthusiastic Java Jazz festival goers, I wondered how Martyniuk would be received in Europe. I have travelled there often and there are thousands of good Jazz musicians and many fine trios vying for attention. Jazz is valued there, especially in the northeast, and audiences are inclined to be very discriminating. I got my answer shortly after Martyniuk’s arrival, as notifications of media events, club gigs, radio and TV interviews started appearing. He had broken through the clamour and received acclaim in his birthplace. His co-released warm as toast Jazz-soul-funk album ‘After ‘Ours’ and his Jazz gigs, equally acclaimed.
The journey back to the country of his birth had been important for Martyniuk and he has returned with heightened confidence, exuding a sense that anything is possible. This was evidenced by the trio’s live performance at the Lewis Eady showroom. Many New Zealand improvising bands have a laid back organic feel as that is generally our thing. In contrast, this band is tightly focussed, but without that in any way detracting from its appeal. The tunes by Martyniuk are melodic and often rhythmically complex. This is counterbalanced nicely by Samsom and McArthur who create contrast and interwoven texture. The first set was a mix of old and new tunes. His older tunes like The Awakening and New Beginning, familiar in the same way standards are – always pleasing, always yielding up something fresh. His more recent compositions a mix of burners and ballads.
The Lewis Eady gig was augmented by the addition of visiting Polish saxophonist Jakub Skowronski. Skowronski has a beautiful even tone on tenor and like Samsom and McArthur, he’s the perfect foil for Martyniuk. While he made it all look effortless, his solos took us deep inside the music. These guys were made to play together and I hope they remain a unit. They have a lot more to tell us yet and with any luck, we will get to enjoy the continuing story as it unfolds. Those who wish to be part of this journey can contribute via a recently set up ‘Kickstarter’ campaign following this link. There was some really exciting new material recorded in Poland over the last year and the Kickstarter campaign is about getting that released into the world. No one ever regretted supporting great music like this.
Michal Martyniuk (piano, compositions, leader), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums, percussion) + Jakub Skowronski (tenor). You can follow this band and order albums from Empire Agency Co. Bands / Michal Martyniuk Trio
Rarely, do we get to experience something truly sublime and for this to occur a number of planets must be perfectly aligned. Art at this level cannot be forced as the realization is dependant on both tangibles and intangibles. The musician might be in peak form, but if the room or the instrument is mediocre then the fine edge of perfection is blunted. It is harder to achieve in a capacious concert hall; easier in a well-appointed studio or an intimate vibing Jazz club. There is no manual to guide us to the point of departure. It is a divine alchemy pure and simple.
When I heard that Jonathan Crayford would be touring the country with a Steinway D Concert piano and one with considerable provenance, my first inclination was to doubt. This was no small undertaking. The piano in question was special, played by luminaries such as Lily Kraus, who signed it. It was formerly owned by a branch of the Guggenheim family and if Crayford had not asked a friend to purchase it, we would have lost it to an offshore purchaser. The friend, surprisingly, agreed and said, “Now use it”. Crayford is one of the few musicians who could pull this off.
The piano and Crayford travelled up from Wellington a few days ago and the first concert took place on the day of their arrival in Auckland. The lovely Uxbridge Arts Centre in Howick was the first venue; a pleasant, modern 100+ seat auditorium with good acoustics (especially for a piano) and an intimate cosiness. I arrived early as I was videoing and sat quietly in the darkness; watching Crayford and his magnificent piano get acquainted.
Crayford approaches pianos with reverence and sensitivity. I watched as he played a few phrases – then he paused when a particular voicing took his attention. Putting his ear close and playing it again with a look of delight. He was learning the secrets and subtleties of the instrument. Later during the concert, he gently tapped out a note which had taken his fancy. “Listen carefully”, he said to the audience, pointing to a particular key. A soft harmonic-rich sound reverberated gently through the room – revealing a warm golden timbre. As he shared these insights we felt privileged. Crayford treats fine pianos as living entities; beings to be understood, curated, exalted. When he finished a piece he would gently lift his hands and time would stall as the slow decay of chord or phrase created new harmonics and textures. Sound bouncing off wood, frame and room until it faded into infinity.
He opened with a composition of his own, a reflective piece of deep spacious improvisation, perfectly realised and just the right length to reel us in. The awed hush from the audience said it all. This concert was special and everyone there swiftly grasped that. Next, we heard his take on an obscure but unmistakable Monk tune, the familiar jagged lines morphing into new shapes as he went. There was no set playlist, no charts to guide him; just a small black notebook with dozens of possible tunes written down and in no particular order. The piano and his musician’s instinct informing him of the journey as he went. Tunes were chosen or rejected on the fly. His programme consisting mainly of reflective material but with a few faster-paced tunes to balance these out. A tune from the Spanish civil war attributed to Garcia Lorca was an example of the latter. On the slower reflective pieces like a Satie Gymnopedie, he left space for the music to breathe – space for the spirit of the piano to sing through. He would often play three pieces together and then rise from the piano to quote a line from Shakespeare or to offer an insight into a piece. He is a fascinating speaker and his enthusiasm utterly infectious. Nothing was out of place, everything he did conveyed the magic of the moment.
I urge music lovers to clear their calendars and attend these extraordinary concerts as Crayford travels throughout New Zealand. It is seldom that we get to experience projects like this and extremely rare to hear them in such intimate spaces. The most difficult gig in Jazz is the free-ranging improvised solo piano concert. When it works (and this certainly did) it is the most rewarding. This was deep improvisation, sensitive interaction and piano/sound curation at it’s best. It paid respect to the solo art form and above all to a very special Steinway piano. It was Jarrett like (but without the abuse). It was Crayford at his best and that is enough to satisfy any music lover.
Good Music always says something interesting; it’s a form of communication where a musical statement begins a process and a listener responds. With any innovative musical form, we need to bring something of ourselves to the equation. The more open our ears the better the experience. Gifted improvisers of all cultures understand these fundamentals and because of this they mostly tell old stories in new ways. Rarely and bravely, musicians hit us with stories not yet fixed in the popular imagination. Steve Barry and his collaborators have a foot in both camps. While this is adventurous material, it is also approachable to anyone with open ears. What we heard at the CJC was innovative but the archetypes of all music were located deep in the compositional structure. A careful listening revealed trace elements from composers like Stravinsky or Bley and perhaps even of indigenous music.
The first piece they opened with was titled ‘Grind’ – a composition inspired by Sydney traffic (much as Tristano utilised every street sound that floated through his NY window). The piece began as journeys do with determined momentum – a degree of clarity followed by a more frenetic stop-start feel as the piece progressed – then reflection. It appealed to me greatly and twelve minutes in, I knew that I was hearing something similar to the approach used by Bley/Guiffre/Swallow in ‘Freefall’. There are moments in musical history when profound change is signalled and that album was one of them. The critics of the time hated it of course but modern Jazz audiences have caught up. The new Barry album ‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ will not be regarded as controversial but as vital and forward-looking. Back then clubs took fright and closed their doors but no club owner worth their salt would miss booking this group.
Barry is an interesting pianist and composer and this project may be his best to date. At the CJC he was confronted with a basic upright piano, but he somehow transformed it into a new instrument entirely. Many in the audience were fascinated and approached him afterwards to enquire how he achieved this slight of hand. Clever miking and a constant repetitive damping of the soft pedal was evident, but I suspect that his rapid-fire staccatissimo touch contributed as much to the effect. I know that Barry has also explored Bartok and the classical modernists and this may hold some clues as well. Whether by happenstance or contrivance, the overall effect was enormously pleasing. There were set patterns and themes, but these altered, developed, as fresh ideas arose from them.
I was delighted to finally catch up with Dave Goodman (PhD), having heard him last at the 505 in Sydney (along with Mike Nock, Rog Manins, James Muller and Cameron Undy). Goodman is an enormously versatile drummer and a popular educator. His role here is varied, but often that of ‘colourist’. Rolling his sticks over the drum heads, or providing contrast with irregular taps on the snare or a muted ride cymbal – and entering these interesting conversations as an equal. The other trio member was Jeremy Rose on reeds (his horns, the alto saxophone and bass clarinet). He was just superb and every bold sound or whispered breath added new dimensions. It is seldom that we hear a bass clarinet and to hear one in a trio setting of this kind is even rarer. The clarinets woodiness and rich harmonics added texture, the alto, a hawk awaiting its moment then swooping purposefully. In spite of the varying tempos and moods, the album imparts a delicacy from start to finish. Live, they got the best out of the acoustics and venue piano. What a perfect sound palette Barry has chosen for this project and whether live or recorded, how satisfying the realisation.
The album ‘Blueprints and Vignettes’ is available from stevebarrymusic.bandcamp.com or from retail and online sources (I recommend Bandcamp). The album features Max Alduca on bass. The live gig took place at the Thirsty Dog for the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) – February 21, 2018.
As Alan Brown moves in new directions, he is leaving some extraordinary musical documents in his wake. Hot on the heels of his recent Alargo collaborations he releases a second solo album, ‘Composure’. Again, this is an ambient album and like Alargo it is meticulously crafted. It is a solo piano album but much more. Here, the minutiae of the sonic world are revealed and important ambient sounds which are often overlooked. In our busy modern lives, we drown in sonic overload. Here in Composure, the very essence of sound is explored, nurtured, curated, given wings. There is an incredible floating quality to these tracks and the effects are otherworldly, but this is a world beginning at Brown’s fingertips. A world that exists inside a Steinway D piano, an empty concert chamber; in places overlooked. There are faint sounds of the street present and other ‘found’ environmental sounds. These are present as breakthrough sound, loops or drones, adding texture and depth.
It is tempting to think that the pieces arose from written charts or pre-existing motifs, but they didn’t. This is spontaneous composition and formed in reaction to the sounds and the atmospheres of the moment. With the exception of the Scape drone effect on ‘Form of a Dream’, all other effects have been added after the exploration. The material in this album was recorded at the same time as ‘Silent Observer’ and this is a worthy successor. This music has no preconditions attached and the listener should engage in whatever way they wish. There are incalculable benefits from slowing our lives down and when we do we become deeper listeners, more nuanced in our approach to the frenetic world about us.
I have added the first track ‘Form of a Dream’ as a Bandcamp sound clip. I urge everyone to set up a free Bandcamp account – I do much of my listening there. You can buy physical albums, get high (or low) fidelity downloads, or stream. The artists also get a greater share than with other platforms. The Composure album is available from alanbrown.co.nz or from alanbrown.bandcamp.com
Just before the Aria winning Mooroolbark album was released I travelled to Australia and interviewed Barney McAll. He had not long returned from New York to take up his year-long Glanville Hicks Residency and at some point during the morning, he played me a few pieces he was working on. Some of that material has ended up on ‘Hearing the blood’. Listening to McAll developing a tune is not something that you forget. His preternatural fluency leaves images hanging in the air, where they linger long afterwards. As he worked through ideas, each one appeared as if fully formed and I wondered; how can these phrases possibly be improved on? The finished album answers that question. The act of creation is never fixed in time. A good composition opens up possibilities and lives on in the minds of those who receive it. The virtuous triangle of creator, music and listener.
Everything McAll does is eagerly anticipated and this album is no exception. The palette is broader than anything he has done before and unlike its predecessors, it is mostly an Australian affair. Albums like this are often referred to as a journey and while that can be an accurate descriptor, the term is hopelessly clichéd. Hearing the blood is more than that, it is a vast and interesting landscape. A place evoking fleeting memories and above all hope; the raw energy of life and landscape distilled. It is also a commentary on the human condition, honest but never judgemental, stories in chiaroscuro. At times the flow of tunes is interrupted by something surprisingly different, but the atypically juxtaposed tracks never detract from the overall impact. Hearing the Blood is also littered with coded messages. The landscape it portrays while ancient to modern is somehow eternally present. Where musical genres or subgenres are referenced, they are just as casually brushed aside; the exploration of ideas being more important than barriers. The listeners are invited to step outside of their comfort zone and some will baulk at that. Jazz listeners are all too inclined to swaddle themselves in the familiar and in doing so they can lose connection with the now. In a year when dialogue has been debased beyond recognition by a petulant child President, we need other forms of communication. Hearing The Blood is a refreshing place to start in our re-evaluation of the world. For those who have the ears to hear they will find a subtle humour and a joy pervading every corner; as with Mooroolbark, the trickster lurks at every turn.
It is hard to single out just one track for posting so I will embed two sound clips. The first clip is ‘Nock Code’ (a tribute to the admired Jazz pianist Mike Nock). The tune begins with the opening bars Nock’s composition ‘The Sybiline Fragrance’. Many will recognise the tune as it featured on Nock’s ‘Hear & Know’ album (and other earlier albums). In McAll’s hands, the homage is perfection. He does what he did in ‘The Mother of Dreams and Secrets’ and in his trio rendering of ‘Why did I Choose You’. He slows everything down and from out of the altered space, emerges an essence that drips through the consciousness like honey. As the tune unfolds he makes other references including his earlier recorded self. When the body of the tune is given to Morgan on guitar it soars wonderfully. The second sound clip is ‘Sorrow Horse’; a tune which showcases his skilful arranging. There is an ABC film Clip of ‘Dog Face Now’ which is hard to find. That track is an altogether wilder ride; at times more of a conduction, complete with flashcards, worth hunting for.
From the earlier Mooroolbark album are bassist Jonathan Zwartz and Hamish Stuart on drums. Also on this album are Mike Rivett on tenor saxophone, Carl Morgan guitar, Adrian Sherriff trombone and Scott MCConnache alto saxophone – Daniel Merriweather vocals on ‘Love is the Blood’, ‘That Which Provides’, Jade Talbot vocals on ‘Sorrow Horse’ with McAll – on the outro of ‘Love is the Blood’ is Ben Vanderwal on drums, Jenn Gavito is on Flute in ‘Nock Code’ and on ‘Echoless Shore’ are: Gian Slater, Ben Monder, Maeve Gilchrist and the Invenio Singers: Miriam Crelin, Louisa Rankin, Allra Wilson and Edward Farlie. On Piano, Keyboards, vocals and Chucky – Barney McAll (most of the compositions and arrangements are his).
McAll is a significant creative force on the planet. When his name comes up among musicians he is spoken of in reverential tones. The album liner notes by Kurt Rosenwinkel reinforce this point nicely. Another New York musician who had worked with him put it this way. “With Barney McAll you get creativity and musicianship of the highest order, but there is something profound behind that. He somehow rises above the workaday aspects of the industry, all of the scuffling, and he lives his life as a creative artist should. He and the people around him value the creative spirit beyond all else and that is exceedingly rare”.
To buy the album or to hear a few streamed clips, go to McAll’s Exracelestialarts Bandcamp site. It is also available on iTunes and Spotify. I urge everyone to sign up for Bandcamp and order CD’s or downloads directly. On that platform, the artists have better control of the revenue stream. I saw him again a few weeks ago and he was preparing for an album release at Birds Basement on the 8th December. You really should get yourselves there Melbourne people. Magic is in short supply this year.
This piece was almost titled ‘my career as Jef Neve’s Driver’, but in the end, I shied away from that. In truth, my tenure as a roadie/driver was brief (although fulfilling). The term roadie was perhaps a bit of a stretch also because I only lifted one suitcase (and that was with help). I decided early in life that my ideal job was working as a roadie for a Jazz pianist. I figured that the obligation to lift heavy things would be minimal and that I could consume endless supplies of live improvised music. With regard to the first point, I was woefully under-researched. In Europe, Neve actually travels accompanied by his piano, but luckily for me, the airlines are reluctant to accept a piano as stow-on luggage. The Auckland airport pick-up went flawlessly (apart from the suitcase to person ratio which was resolved by Neve who is used to fitting notes into improbable spaces). As we drove, I chatted; easing my way into the story in true Gonzo journalist fashion. So there we were jammed into my car like Hanseatic cod; Jef, Pieter, Dieter and me; heading for a piano, a rhythm section and a string quartet. This was going to be fun.I met Neve once before and I have followed his career over the years. He is a major artist and a household name in Belguim. A year ago I passed through his beautiful city of Ghent, and I vividly recall a young woman behind the hotel counter asking me what I knew about the city. It was actually Robert Browning who introduced me to Ghent, but I replied Jef Neve. Oh yes, he’s famous she said. When I told her that I had once interviewed him, she was obviously impressed. In her eyes, I was no longer some grey haired tourist but a guy who had met Jef Neve.The KMC is a venue with good acoustics; not too dry – not too wet. It was once a television studio and before that the principal home of radio in New Zealand. Now it houses the UoA Jazz School and the School of dance. I found a swivel chair and slid my self across to the listening sweet spot as the trio rehearsed. Then, the string quartet turned up and the work began in earnest. Into that darkened space the music spirits descended; channelling themselves through Neve’s fingers and entering the musicians one by one. I sat there through four and a half hours of rehearsal; soaking up the sound; awestruck and utterly engrossed from start to finish. Cam McArthur was on bass and Ron Samsom on drums. Both are very fine musicians – on this gig they manifested as truly great musicians.Experienced improvising musicians are quick to read cues; usually conveyed by a brief glance. Things can change in a moment as new ideas develop; it is a core skill – the ability to interpret subliminal signals and react accordingly. For a classical string quartet, it is different. Cues are generally pencilled into their charts or perhaps conveyed by a conductor. The Black Quartet tackled these difficult charts with vigour, questioning Neve throughout and writing in minute changes or subtle expression marks. I heard Neve remark afterwards how enormously impressed he was with their musicianship – “I would be happy to work with these musicians anytime”, he said. Throughout the day the musicians rehearsed the knotty bits and acclimatised themselves to function as an ensemble. Watching music like this take shape is a joy.Concerts like this are underpinned by hard work and it usually takes a number of rehearsals to achieve tight ensemble playing. Occasionally I get to observe bands in rehearsal or in a recording studio and as the hours go by you can feel the energy shift. An evolution occurs as the music is properly understood and internalised. So it was with this ensemble and after hours of concentrated work, they breathed in unison. The key to this was Neve who is a gifted communicator and patience personified. When energy is harnessed in this way it becomes spirit. Neve had two assistants with him and as the ensemble poured over the charts these two quietly wove their magic. Both sat at consoles and throughout the day they tweaked, miked-up and fine-tuned the sound. The string section was miked to perfection, giving out a sweet woody sound but subtly amplified to exactly the right place in the mix. An audience is seldom aware of the hours a good sound technician puts in (that is unless they do a poor job). This was sound mixing as an art-form. The results were perfection.
I watched the string section throughout the day as layer after layer of complexity was added to already complex charts. I wondered how they would ever remember it all but they did. The performance sang like the gods had blessed it. After all of that work, they yielded to the spirit control. It is often said that Rock is simple music made to sound complex and that Jazz is complex music made to sound simple. As they played this beautiful music, it flowed with such ease. All of the intricacies and fine tuning of the rehearsal were subsumed into the greater whole. This is Neve’s gift; a master musician who blends genres seamlessly, who breathes life into the notes on a stave and takes others along with him. For me, that sublime performance was enhanced by the journey proceeding it. On that day, I was not only a driver but a music voyeur; the best job in the world.‘Spirit Control’ is a lovely album. It is richly satisfying and with a clarity of purpose that cuts through genre and preconception. There is an orchestral quality to Neve’s piano so when the orchestra comes in or fades out the transition feels seamless. There are so many clever references in this music – often shimmering – mirage-like; Tango, folk, modern classical, Nordic improvised Ambient, even pop. This is, however, Jazz of the highest order. Not drawing on the blues but on the many musical forces of Neve’s continent. Jazz has many homes in the modern world. While most of the pieces on the album were played at the Auckland concert there were also new arrangements and pieces from previous albums. There were also hard swinging trio passages. During these, Samsom and McArthur were astounding, moving from arco bass or colourist drumming to a dizzying, exciting, take no prisoners swing. The cross-appeal of this album is evidenced by the fact that it appeared on the Belgium pop charts and stayed there for weeks.
The next day a smaller concert was held at the Lewis Eady showrooms in Epsom. This was a solo piano gig and Neve took a very different tack to the day before. While he played a few of his own compositions, he also played some Jazz standards – Monk’s ‘I mean you’ was a rare treat – with a stride piano left hand accentuating Monk’s delightfully quirky tune. Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’ was moving and Joni Mitchell’s ‘A case of you’ was delicate and beauty manifest. After the concert, we ate tapas in K’Road and then I drove them into the Waitakere hills. We stopped at the highest trig point and later at Rose Hallaby’s cottage. As they looked out over the vast expanse of native bush and the smells of forest washed away the smells of the city, I saw the amazement and wonder on their faces. When you live in the lowlands views like this are rare. I told them of the many artists and musicians who live in these hills. When your attuned to the creative spirit then life is good.
These performances were part of the Auckland Jazz Festival. Jef Neve is a Universal recording artist and the album and other information is available from JefNeve.com
All photos except the album cover were taken by me during the rehearsal on Saturday 14 October 2017
It was appropriate that Warners ‘A List’ recording artist Kevin Field brought with him local A listers Dixon Nacey, Cam McArthur, Roger Manins and Stephen Thomas. Field has a substantial following in New Zealand and his innovative music attracts musicians and fans alike. Since his last ‘A List’ gig he’d clearly been busy – writing new material and rendering the familiar into something altogether different. Zoot Sims once quipped, “Jazz is a music where you never play the same thing once’. Field certainly exemplifies that tongue in cheek descriptor. Commentators and visiting musicians often remark on his innovative approach to harmony and rhythm. It is as if he has invented a new musical language out of the old. In truth, there are strong elements of related genres like R & B, latin and even disco funk there; under his fingers they become unique vehicles for improvisation.Unlike Janet Jackson, Field never suffers from wardrobe malfunctions. He does however occasionally suffer from equipment malfunctions. I mention it only because his Rhodes had failed him during a previous weeks CJC gig. No one listening comprehended that he had lost some of the middle-register. No one noticed because he re-voiced mid improvisation to work around the problem. I have heard of old timers doing this but seldom modern pianists. Field can effortlessly jump over obstacles and find a sweet spot.
On Wednesday he used the Thirsty Dog’s upright piano as well as his Rhodes. Miking an upright presents challenges that don’t arise when miking a grand, consequently the piano was a little quieter in the mix than the Rhodes (and Nacey’s guitar). It didn’t matter in the end because the music was wonderful and the others modulated their sound when necessary.There were old favourites reworked like ‘Game Changer’, ‘Good Friday’ and ‘Left Field’, but the rest were recent compositions. Among the newer numbers were ‘Rain check’ and ‘Acme Music Corporation’ (the latter featuring Manins on soprano – a rare event). Another new number ‘Unconditional love’ was introduced by Field with the following story. ‘There are many types of love in the world and today an unusual example came up in my twitter feed, – ‘Trumps deportation threats make my in-laws fearful. They live at 2b/34 Main St, Phoenix. My Mother in law arrives home from work at 4:30’ “.The last tune ‘Home Schooled’ was the best possible number to finish the evening with. Far from being a wind-down number, the musicians reached inside themselves, each giving magnificent performances. Manins back for a second number was on tenor, and he sounded happy to be back on his favourite horn. Nacey was at his best, making his guitar soar, as if he had found an ancient alchemy, a way to condense sunlight into music; the epitome of sonic clarity, invention and virtuosity. McArthur and Thomas each in step and reacting to the challenges. With material like this good musicians can achieve wonders.
Kevin Field: (Rhodes, piano, compositions), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Roger Manins (tenor and soprano saxes), Cam McArthur (bass), Stephen Thomas (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club, Thirsty Dog Tavern, 29th March 2017.
The Lewis Eady special concert featuring the Michal Martyniuk trio lived up to its promise. It’s not often I get to hear Martyniuk and more’s the pity because his playing resonates strongly with me. He attended the Auckland University Jazz School, but he doesn’t sound like his contemporaries as he brings his Polish origins to the keyboard. His is the approach of Wasilewsky and other modern young Polish improvisers. Rhythmically adventurous, melodically rich and with harmonies often referencing the twentieth century European classical composers. Polish Jazz developed in isolation and in secret, the Nazi’s forbad it and the Russians strongly discouraged it. From Krzysztof Komeda onwards the music communicated a unique sense of place, an authenticity, self-contained inventiveness and at times even wistfulness. The initial impetus came from covert listening to Radio America but the rich wellsprings of Chopin, eastern bloc avant-garde and mazurka are there too.
Martyniuk came to New Zealand with his family in his late teens. His love of Jazz and in particular the Polish variant, began before he arrived. He had already begun his piano studies in Poland and attending a Jazz School in his new country was a natural choice. It was therefore fitting that his trio consisted of drummer Ron Samsom the programme coordinator of the UoA Jazz School, and bass player Cameron McArthur, a gifted ex UoA Jazz School student. These musicians are more than capable of working their own Kiwi magic into a European style of playing. They were joined on three numbers by saxophonist Nathan Haines, a long time mentor of Martyniuk’s. The concert marked a cross-road for Martyniuk as he and the trio departed for the Jakarta based Java Jazz Festival soon afterwards. This prestigious event is the biggest Jazz festival in the world and it bodes well that they were chosen to perform there. The festival is attended by well over 100,000 people and it pulls in the who’s who of the Jazz world. After the concert Martyniuk is travelling on to Europe (and Poland) where he hopes to intensify his studies and absorb more of the Jazz of his youth. He informed me that he would probably return in about a years time. That is something for local Jazz lovers to look forward to. The back room of the Lewis Eady complex is a good space acoustically, the audience embraced by an encompassing circle of grand pianos. There is a sense that these resting machines add sympathetic resonance to the performance, it certainly seemed so last Wednesday.As the programme developed, the trio dived deep into the material. They demonstrated their skill as individual musicians, but also that they could play as a highly interactive unit. There was room for subtlety as well as bravura, together they sang. Having Haines join them rounded off the performance, especially on his trade mark cutting soprano. No one else locally sounds like him on that horn, he is a master of the instrument. As I listened, Haines brought to mind John Surman, an English improvising saxophonist who has a unique clarity of sound on the three horns he plays.
This is the pattern with our improvising musicians; they travel, work cruise ships and absorb new ideas in far off places, eventually to return, making us the lucky beneficiaries.
The piece I have posted is a Martyniuk composition titled ‘The Awakening’. An extraordinary piece of music where each trio member excels while leaving space for the others. Tension and release, excitement, interaction, it’s all there; very much in the European tradition and as good as anything I have heard in Europe. Samsom achieving a delicious flat-ride sound by sheer technique.
Michal Martyniuk Trio: Martyniuk (piano, compositions), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums) + guest Nathan Haines (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone) Lewis Eady showrooms, 22nd February 2017
Tubular Live: Having earlier reviewed the long anticipated Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ album I looked forward to the live launch. The Thirsty Dog gig was well attended, the audience extremely enthusiastic and no wonder. Although we saw a slightly different line-up from the album band, they were on fire from the first note. Watson, always a confident performer, was more in command than I have ever seen him and he communicated his musical vision effortlessly. Perhaps this was due to the long gestation of the material, but now he had a platform to extend the concepts further and he grabbed the opportunity. The evening seamlessly covered the breadth of guitar jazz and beyond. While much of the material was influenced by Jazz/Rock or improvisations built on genres like surf guitar, the gentler mainstream Jazz heroes of the past like Johnny Smith and Errol Garner were also honoured. On the ‘Tubular’ album his musical influences are evident. At the live gig, he stared those influences down and carved out his own space. He is one of the few New Zealand musicians who can convincingly occupy Frisell or Ribot territory and he demonstrated that. The perfect example was his rendering of the classic five beat Mambo Picadillo by Tito Puente. He began with a solo intro, dissonant chords offering brief hints as to where he was heading. As he developed his theme the audience gasped in delight as Errol Garners ‘Misty’ emerged, morphing into the gentler Johnny Smith version of ‘Moonlight in Vermont’. That it worked at all is a tribute to his musicianship, that it was done so well all the more so. The Mambo was well-arranged and just superb, not a foot remained still and the bar staff stopped in their tracks, swaying. Another tour de force (not on the album) was his arrangement of ‘Hard rains are going to fall’ (Dylan). This followed his gentle ballad ‘Kerala’.
The band finished the last set with an upbeat number and there was no way the audience was going to let things lie there. Watson in keeping with his quirky humour and well within his brief; finished with the 1959 surf/rock guitar classic ‘Sleepwalk’ (Santo & Johnny). Accompanying him he had the talented and versatile Ron Samsom (drums) and Olivier Holland (upright bass). Replacing Grant Winterburn on Keyboards and Roger Manins on tenor saxophone was Cameron Allen. If anyone can replace two talented musicians and do so convincingly it is Allen. Instead of a tenor he played baritone saxophone and at other times his array of keyboards and ‘doogon’. I have video but I am still experiencing upload problems – I will upload when sorted.
Crystal Choi (private concert): This particular invitation-only concert was organised by Jonathan Crayford and the invitations were swiftly taken up. Crayford is a legendary figure on the New Zealand music scene and when he gets behind a young artist, people pay attention. I have watched Choi develop musically over the years, but I had not seen her perform for some time. In the past she has appeared with students, part of an ensemble, seldom stepping into the limelight for long. This was a departure, a brave step into the challenging world of improvised solo piano. Developing artists (and even experienced performers) struggle with this format, some panic and resort to noodling. When Crayford introduced the concert he stated, “Crystal is amazing, and what you are about to hear will speak for itself”. He was right.
What we witnessed was a rapidly maturing artist. She exuded a confidence I had not seen before and her ideas were well-developed, all communicated with the utmost clarity. There were two sets and most of the compositions were her own. It was a large crowd for such a small space, but not a soul talked, shuffled, clinked glasses or coughed. She had them all in rapt attention as she wove her stories around themes and explored harmonic visions. This is the right musical space for Choi and I hope she develops it further. A sound that is more European in concept than American, where space, melody, and nuance are dominant. As she worked her way through the sets, everything flowed. If this is what she is like at 22 years of age, I can’t wait to hear her at 32. The sound was well captured and surprisingly, there were no awkward echoes or untoward harmonics considering the size of the room. It certainly helped that she had a ‘Grotrian’ grand to perform on. I hope that we see more solo piano from Choi.
Neil Watson ‘Tubular’ Live: Watson (guitars, compositions), Cameron Allen, (baritone sax, keyboards, electronics), Ron Samsom (drums), Olivier Holland (upright bass) @ the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Thirsty Dog, Auckland.15th February 2017
It felt good to back at the CJC after nine weeks away and all the more so when I discovered that the Steve Barry Quartet was playing. Since attending my last CJC gig I had travelled 40,173 kilometres (as the crow flies), journeyed through ten very different countries, confused innumerable people along the way with my slender grasp of their deliciously exotic languages (including American English); I visited six Jazz clubs and numerous jazz bars, experienced hundreds of poetry encounters – travelled on more ships, trains and planes than I can remember and wore out a brand new pair of shoes. In spite of feeling befuddled and seeing at least two of everything, I decided that a dose of improvised music might impose a semblance of order on my disordered senses. Still jet lagged I drove expectantly into the city, surprised to find that dozens of large buildings had been sneakily removed in my absence. The Albion stood precariously on a precipice – all nearby buildings gone without a trace; giving the block the appearance of a toothless grin; apart from one well-worn molar.
No one is ever going to be disappointed by a Steve Barry gig, an adventurous and constantly evolving pianist and composer. I was also delighted that he was featuring Martin Kay, a gifted and adventurous saxophonist. As the lights went down and the music washed over me, order returned. My neurones settled into familiar grooves as I felt myself exploring the sound and it’s endless possibilities. I closed my eyes for a moment, but on opening them saw the strangest apparition. The jet lag was far worse than I thought because a young woman appeared to be gyrating dangerously across my vision – her long hair flying in all directions. She lurched one way and then another, at times bent double, her movements so erratic that I decided that it was probably a mirage brought on by crossing too many time zones.
She rushed here and there, dancing (well sort of), a look of strained intensity on her face, eventually deciding to up the ante by falling heavily onto the tables and sending my equipment and drinks flying. A guiding hand came out of the darkness and led her away to a corner where she sat forlorn and motionless – at least for a few minutes. As a finale and before anyone could restrain her, she sprinted toward the band, launching herself free of gravity. This weightless state lasted mere seconds, then an untidy crash followed as she fell heavily into the centre of the bandstand – a slow motion train wreck in an odd time signature.
What impressed me enormously was the composure of the band. Grinning from ear to ear they played on, never missing a beat – true improvisers, reacting to and utilising the moment. Barry has accumulated many accolades and awards over recent years but he is never one to rest on his laurels; spending the last year composing – finding new ways to express his evolving musical ideas. The music was superb, ranging from open and free to adventurous standards, beguiling, labyrinthine. The gig guide had accurately described Barry’s compositions as modernism, melodicism and minimalism combined. As themes were probed and developed, new soundscapes opened up. The addition of the gifted Martin Kay an asset, enabling a fuller realisation of Barry’s vision.
Kay was on alto for this gig, bringing every ounce of his considerable talent to bear as we experienced his full-throated sound. His solos took us deep inside the music and at times he utilised extended technique. His use of multi-phonics was impressive but never gratuitous, adding colour and fresh dimensions to the innovative compositions. A piano does not have the freedom of a saxophone in this regard, but Barry played off the others with increasing intensity during his solos. The contrast was extremely pleasing. On bass was Cameron McArthur and on drums Andy Keegan, both performing like the veterans they are. McArthur is a regular and popular at the CJC (deservedly so). Keegan we see less, but on the basis of Wednesday nights performance I would hope to see him more often. This was complex though accessible music and well rendered. Barry’s year of hibernation has been a fruitful one.
A seldom played standard Juju (Wayne Shorter) was marvelous. The angularity and endlessly unexpected turns paying Shorter deep respect. This gig showcased musicality at the highest level (and with the added benefit of some impromptu free fall performance art thrown in). I was glad to be back home for this.
I heard quite a bit of music while travelling and I also heard the varying cadences of the spoken word along the way (especially in poetry). In Vienna I heard a the cross-pollination of Americana and European folk rhythms (Chico Freeman), in the Bimhuis Amsterdam I heard Euro Free Jazz (Frank von Bimmel and Han Bennink) – in Gdansk I heard improvised music that was Polka infused. Improvised music is a universal phenomena but it has regional dialects. I like our Australasian dialect very much.
Steve Barry Quartet: Steve Barry (piano, compositions), Martin Kay (alto saxophone, compositions), Cameron McArthur (upright bass), Andy Keegan (drums). The gig took place on 26th October 2016 at the Albion Hotel basement – CJC (Creative Jazz Club).
I can’t remember when I first became conscious of Polish Jazz, but after Tomasz Stanko, Poland was forever on my listening radar. After that, I would listen to Polish improvisers whenever I came across them, Wasilewski, Komeda etc, and all the more so when I discovered later in life that I was a quarter Polish. In light of the above, I was naturally interested when I came across an Auckland-based, Polish-born pianist Michal Martyniuk. He was standing in for Kevin Field at a Nathan Haines gig – around the time of “The Poets Embrace’ release. Since then I have seen him with various iterations of Haines’ bands but until last week, never at a gig where he was the leader. It is an oft-debated topic, but I sometimes hear references to time and place in original music. After hearing Martyniuk I could identify his northern European influences. When I asked the pianist about the artists he most admires, he quickly identified Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny (also Weather Report plus Miles and Herbie). The Metheny/Mays reference is definitely evident but sifted through a Eurocentric filter. Mays, although influenced by Evans never sounded like a typical American pianist. Martyniuk’s compositions and performance contain all of the hallmarks of modern Euro jazz, a sound I hear in the Alboran Trio, Wasilewski and younger pianists like Michal Tokaj. A warmer sound than the Scandinavian pianists but as light filled and airy. There is a beauty to Martyiuk’s playing, a stylistic identity. For such a young pianist to have located this special sound is impressive.Something that many post-millennial Jazz musicians avoid, is evoking a sense of beauty. I can understand that because it must be done well or not at all. It is the territory of balladeers like Ben Webster and the territory of artists like Metheny. This was done well. The compositions were cleverly constructed around developing themes and with nothing was rushed, allowing melodic inventions to manifest. The tunes were also cleverly modulated, subtly amping up the tension to good effect at key points. Like Bennie Lackner, he used electronic keyboards to enhance or emphasize a phrase, but very sparingly.Again we see a musician deploying a top rated rhythm section to good advantage. With McArthur and Samsom behind him, he again showed wisdom. He worked with them and they gave him plenty in return. Although we often see this particular bass player and drummer in diverse situations, they appeared very comfortable here. The overall effect was that of interplay and cohesion.
Martyniuk is often asked to play in Haines bands and he returned the favour here. Haines joined the trio for four numbers. This was Haines in a reflective mood, in spite of his status, fitting in comfortably. His beautiful soprano tone a good fit for these compositions and his richer tenor likewise. Again the arrangements created a particular mood. After the unspeakable ugly horrors in the world at present, it was a relief to hear such a gorgeous performance. A night of music to heal our bruised souls.Martyniuk came to New Zealand around ten years ago and he attended the Auckland School of Music. Along with producer Nick Williams, he is soon to release a Jazz infused Soul album which will feature internationally renowned artists like Kevin Mark Trail, Nathan Haines, Miguel Fuentes and others. Judging by the huge audience at this gig his future looks very rosy indeed. The Jazz club turned away dozens of attendees in the end. A good problem to have.
Michal Martyniuk Trio (+ Nathan Haines). Michal Martyniuk (compositions, piano, keys), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums). The CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel basement, 13th July 2016.
This is pianist Mark Donlon’s second appearance at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club). On this visit, his Shadowbird Quartet featured Aucklanders Roger Manins on Saxophone and Cameron McArthur on bass. The gig also brought Wellington drummer Lance Philip to the CJC for the first time. Both the bass player and the drummer have previously recorded with Donlon. The British-born pianist, educator, conductor is the senior lecturer at the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington
Mark Donlon is a highly competent musician and much praised by luminaries such as the UK’s John Fordham. When you hear him play, working his clever compositions, you hear why. As much as I appreciate technical skills it is the human connection I look for and I found it in two Donlon compositions. Making such connections is about locating musical intersections – the place where energies and paths meet. When audience and artist reach for that elusive space, communication happens. The artist creates, the audience gives back. For that instant, time and the music are outside of self and the performance more than the sum of its parts.
Every good tune has a back story. Sometimes the banter provides a map, enabling the listener to probe deeper. It is especially so with new compositions. At other times, the meta-data of a tune embeds in its DNA as with a standard or a contrafact. A standard takes you to a place you have been before, but a new composition asks us as listeners, to imagine. While melody, pulse, and harmony draw us in, a few well-chosen words can conjure additional imagery. Active listening is about more than sound; context matters.The first tune of the second set was ‘Nibiru’ and it was rich in narrative and melody. A thing of strange and compelling beauty. The piece began with a repeating pattern on piano, a pattern which shifted harmonically as it progressed. Over this Manins began by stating the melody – seldom straying far from the matrix in the opening stages. McArthur on bass intensified the mood by establishing a counter pattern and then repeatedly plucking at a single note, Philip free to add colour and texture – and he did. I liked this piece very much as it sounded both old and new (a nice effect if you can pull that off). The story behind it added another dimension entirely. ‘Nibiru’ is an imaginary planet beloved of conspiracy theorists, the ones who wear tin-foil helmets when venturing outside. The ones who see an absense of smoke as conclusive proof that the fire is well hidden. The planet evidently reveals itself to the chosen few and is the home of lizard people. I’m not so sure that the believers deserve a tune this nice. The tongue in cheek rendering of this odd belief is anything but ‘end of times’.
The other tune I liked was ‘Otzi’. It referenced a 4000-year-old ‘Ice Man’ mummy found on the alpine border between Austria and Italy. I had followed this story from the day of his discovery in 1991. Although it struck a deep chord at the time I had forgotten the Ice Man’s nickname. What Donlon captured so effectively was the melancholia. The story of a human ancestor from pre-history, who wandered into our modern consciousness after a long time lost. Apart from Tutankhamun, no figure from that era has touched us so deeply. Otzi trails echoes of sadness in his wake. A palpable sadness which his family must have felt, never knowing what become of him. I think Otzi would have loved this melancholic piece; as much as the modern harmonies would have puzzled him.You would expect a group of musicians of this calibre to play well and they did. There are two Donlon albums out shortly and a few earlier ones available. Support local music by experiencing this artist or the bands various iterations. One place to do that will be at the Wellington Jazz Festival in early June.
A few facts about Otzi: Although Otzi came from the Italian side of the alps, he has 19 known descendants living in Austria today. In spite of suffering from some mobility limiting health issues, he set out on his journey well equipped for alpine travel (better than many trampers of today). He had tatoos from head to foot (the earliest known inker) and his last meal consisted of pollen, grain and goats meat.
The Shadowbird Quartet: Mark Donlon (piano, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass), Lance Philip (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel May 11th 2016.
When I recently interviewed visiting Flamenco dancer Isabel Rivera Cuenca she told me that she had met some wonderful New Zealand improvising musicians and, in particular, she mentioned Jonathan Crayford. They met at a party and briefly discussed doing a project together. As they had not been able to make contact since I supplied email addresses and the project quickly took shape. A talented sensuous Flamenco dancer from Barcelona and a gifted Kiwi improviser; irresistible.Jonathan Crayford has long been one of my favourite musicians and any project of his I will follow with enthusiasm. The thought of him doing a Jazz/Flamenco project filled me with joy. It takes a particular type of musician to reach across genres, and to do so with authenticity is a challenge. If anyone could pull this together at short notice it was Crayford; with his open ears and extraordinary musicality, he ticked all of the boxes. In recent years, he has performed in Spain, but only on Jazz projects. When I spoke to him two weeks before the gig he told me how pleased he was to work on this project, but that he knew little of Spanish music; I had no doubts that he would locate a pure essence and work with it and Isabel Cuenca was the perfect foil. As soon as they appeared on the bandstand the chemistry was obvious. There is a real synergy between Jazz and Flamenco; they are musical cousins. Both musical forms fuse North African Rhythms with unique harmonic approaches, both created out of harsh repression. Underlining the driving rhythms of Flamenco is pure passion, contrasting a sad but beautiful dissonance. The musicians and dancers frequently call to each other in encouragement and this is not so different from the call and response in jazz. That they are similar in essence is hardly surprising – when the chants, dance and polyrhythms of Congo Square met with Creole melody, fed by a multitude of European influences (including Spanish music), Jazz was born.
Early in the first set, Crayford played a variant of his composition ‘Galois Candle’. This appears on his ‘Dark Light’ album nominated for a Jazz Tui award last year. This memorable tune although rhythmic is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of danceability. The synergy between dancer and pianist soon located a sweet-spot in the heart of the tune. I recall Cuenca telling me that everything else in Flamenco was subordinate to honest deeply felt emotion. That is where the Duende resides. A little later we heard an innovative and compelling version of ‘Will o’ the Wisp’ (from El Amor Brujo) by Manuel De Falla. Not the brooding version that Gil Evans used on Sketches in Spain but a paired down version. Stripped to the barest essentials of melody and rhythm. Crayford dampened the strings with one hand and created a simple clipped strumming effect, while Cuenca sang gently over this, softly clapping all the while. It could not have been more effective. After that came a tune by Fredrica Garcia Lorca, the poet who died at the hands of Franco’s Nationalists. This tune ‘Los Cuatro Muleres’ sounds pretty, even jaunty, but it hides a deep sadness as with all Lorca poems and tunes. Again done movingly, and both Crayford and Cuenca sang verses.During the second set we heard tunes which moved closer to the Flamenco idiom. In these free-ranging highly improvised tunes Crayford has few peers. Towards the end of the evening, the two were in absolute lock-step; Cuenca reacting to every nuance of the music and bringing her fluid kinetic brilliance to bear, dancing her way into the hearts of everyone there. The communication was simply electric.
I have posted a video clip from the first set (Galois Candle [Crayford]) and an audio clip from near the end of the second set. I hope that Crayford records some of these tunes as they were magical. Cuenca has many fans in new Zealand and she says that she will return here soon. I hope so because more of this project would please us.
It is not very often that an album like this comes along and more’s the pity. This is an album for those who are properly engaged, who listen deeply; offering ample rewards to those who pay due attention. While there is a hint of the freedom of the 1961-62 Giuffre/Bley/Swallow albums, this is an album of the now. It tells a modern Australian story while claiming a portion of the space occupied by the sparse Nordic improvisers. People might find this darker approach unexpected as the Australian landscape resonates bright light and pastel colours. While not the norm there are recent precedents such as the astonishingly atmospheric ‘Kindred Spirits’ by Mike Nock. Pianist Luke Sweeting shows us from the first few notes that he truly understands form and dynamics. As he moves about the piano his fingers tease out endless shades of colour; the sort found in the shadows. The name Grey Wing Trio is apt too, because the subtlety of the shadings are endless here. Like the wing of a sparrow, what appears as mono-toned becomes multi-hued upon closer examination.
The lightness of Sweeting’s touch gifts him the opportunity to cycle through one crystalline moment after another and the echoes of each chord hang in the air with delicate subtlety. The music has dynamic richness – this in spite of the dominance of quieter moments. Trumpeter Ken Allars excels in this space. Few trumpeters play as he does and few have his tonal or dynamic diversity. He can say as much with a breathy whisper as he can with his gentle flute-like notes or sudden squalls. This references the territory of the Nordic improvisers like Arve Henriksen and Allars does it convincingly. The less is more approach has always served Jazz well and this is another proof. I am familiar with Sweeting and Allars as I have seen them perform on several occasions. The drummer Finn Ryan is new to me. Again he is perfect for the job in hand. A true colourist and able to match the others in subtlety. His use of mallets and fluttering brushwork contrasting nicely with the stick work.
Running through the tracks is an over-arching thread of minimalism. Themes emerge, then evaporate into floating motifs. Realities form and dissolve as if mirages. What remains is deep evanescent beauty. (The sound clip from the album is Chords).
I knew of Matt McMahon long before I met him in the Foundry 616. Australian and New Zealand Jazz lovers respect him as an artist and his name often comes up when improvising musicians talk. In 2008 I picked up a copy of his Ellipsis album during a visit to Sydney. My album collection then as now, was out of control and so after listening to it, I filed the album with the intention of obtaining more by the artist later. Because my cataloging skills are poorly developed it soon slipped out of sight and did not resurface until 2015. That was the year I met McMahon at The Foundry. His gig was as the regular pianist and arranger/co-composer for the Vince Jones band. I liked his playing and noted my impressions of man and pianist on the back of my program; ‘friendly, of quiet demeanour – a pianist with a deft touch – uses beautiful crisp voicings. The perfect accompanist, serving the singer and the song and never his ego‘. We talked for some time after the gig and before I left he handed me a copy of his ‘The Voyage of William and Mary’ album.
As soon as I got back to New Zealand I played the album and loved its depth and scope. Solo piano albums seldom achieve this themed narrative quality. While all of the tracks appear to describe a journey experienced by his Irish ancestors William and Mary, the narrative is deeper and wider than that. It acknowledges McMahon’s Irish roots in subtle ways, but more particularly it outlines a musical journey experienced by the artist. This is the wonder of deep improvisation, a place where all is not what it seems. Each note here is a revelation; not just to the listener but perhaps to the artist as well. Solo albums are the hardest to pull off, as the musician must search deep within. In doing so there is often the risk of unapproachable introspection or worse still self-indulgent noodling. McMahon has convincingly avoided those traps.
Each time I listen to ‘Island of Destiny’ thoughts of my own seafaring ancestors overwhelm me; their imaginings, hopes fears. So much is encapsulated in a piece that somehow transcends itself. What ever the images this beautiful music evokes it is a tribute to McMahon. He shares his vision in a way that allows us to become absorbed and to feel like participants. That is no mean feat.
Matt McMahon (solo piano, compositions) PathsandStreams Records
I was out of the country when Anita Schwabe performed at the CJC two years earlier. While I had seen her perform at the Bruce Mason Centre with the Rodger Fox Orchestra, I wanted to hear her in a more intimate setting. Her live (and recorded) performance on ‘Journey Home’ was impressive and as I recall a jet lagged Alan Broadbent watched her segments from the wings during the Auckland concert. As good as that concert and a later concert were, hearing an artist in close proximity is always a different experience. Schwabe didn’t disappoint. The first thing you observe when you meet her is her understated manner. Like many New Zealand improvising musicians she is self-effacing to the point of being dismissive of her own abilities. This contrasts strongly with the engaging confidence of her playing. From the first few bars you become aware that there is something special going on.
There is something of Broadbent in her ballad playing, perhaps even a hint of Evans, but she has a sound of her own. She initially evokes a sense of the familiar, but then you hear something deeper; a subtle richness underpinning her voicings. A lushness implied but not overtly stated and this quality lingers in memory long after the notes are played – above all she swings like crazy. Perhaps it was having Roger Manins, Ben McNicoll, Ron Samsom and Cameron McArthur in her band that created this particular rub. What ever it was they quickly gelled and played off each other like a band that had been together for years.Schwabe’s first number referenced the under-acknowledged and recently departed pianist Clare Fischer. “I like his unusual voicings”, she said before she played through her composition,’Fisching for Compliments’. The tune was intensely melodic, filled with clever references and a fitting tribute. Although a more reflective number (and her first of the night) we saw what she could do. The tune drew us in with a spacious intro and then imperceptibly we felt the swing. Block chords suddenly dissolving, close voicings appearing, disappearing; right hand running off the back of a phrase, subtly playing with time and rubbing against the chords in the left hand. This interaction between right and left hands created subtle and pleasing tension and we were to hear that often throughout the evening. That first number gave us a foretaste of what was consistently enjoyable music throughout the sets.
There were various ensemble configurations; trio, quartet and quintet. The bigger lineups with Manins and McNicoll were absolute cookers and the pair excelled themselves. An end of year holiday spirit had obviously descended upon them; the musicians interacting in a summery sweet spot. ‘The You Tube clip is ‘Fisching For Compliments’ (trio).The second number was a bossa, ‘No Winter Lasts Forever‘ and for that number she induced Manins (who is famously averse to putting aside his tenor), to play alto. There were whoops of delight and a lot of teasing, but Manins is killing on any of his horns. This was Manins at his formidable best. The saxophone deities of Conn and Selmer sensing the importance of the moment reacted and as he raised his alto, a halo of light formed directly above his head. This was clearly a sign of the gods pleasure. I have put the ‘alto’ bossa number up as the second sound clip. The last number of the evening titled ‘Anger Management’ burned with intensity (the first sound clip). This hard swinging Tyner-esk cooker had everyone on their feet. For Jazz lovers, burners like this are Christmas and New Year rolled into one and they fill us with endless joy.It was great to hear McNicoll and Manins together – both playing their asses off and McNicoll sounding great on soprano. They obviously enjoyed playing together and we were the beneficiaries. Their different horns and their different approaches to soloing entirely complimentary. With McArthur, Samsom and Schwabe you had a formidable rhythm section. McArthur kept a wonderful pulse and Samsom was right in the zone, ever urging them to go one step further. This band floods the body with endorphins – they are a trip. A musician in the audience behind me said – “man that’s some rhythm section – some horn section – yeah thats how its done alright”.
Anita Schwabe: (leader, piano, compositions), Roger Manins (tenor, alto), Ben McNicoll (soprano, tenor), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums). performing at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart, Auckland 16th December 2015
Due to the timing of the Chris Cody album ‘Not My Lover’, some jumped to the conclusion that his Jazz love letter to Paris was in response to the recent atrocities. In fact Cody recorded it well before those tragic events and much to the relief of family and friends he was safely in Australia at the time. The City of Light has the strongest of Jazz associations and Cody captures that intimate relationship perfectly. You can feel the ebb and flow of the city’s life running through his fingertips as he plays. The beauty of the architecture, the elegant Seine, the mad driving through the twisted maze of streets. Through his perceptive lens we gain a sense of the city which for hundreds of years has welcomed visiting creative artists to its heart; regardless of creed or colour. We also catch a fleeting glimpse of the harsher realities hidden behind the gorgeous facade.
Cody is a man of great charm and warmth and the compositions echo his urbane humanity. The album he has crafted is more than a collection of tunes loosely referencing Paris. When you listen carefully you realise that it is a soundtrack for the city; sonic impressionism. His deft pointillism revealing a Paris with its exotic and often troubled connections to North Africa, the complex realities of its political life, its restless intellectualism and the almost mythical sophistication of its women.
On tenor is Karl Laskowski, an important Australian saxophonist who was heard to such great effect on Mike Nocks ‘Hear and Know’ album. Cody albums typically feature the trombone prominently, but this is an exception. The textures are therefore different and in writing for tenor saxophone the piano and horn form an interwoven intimacy. Whereas the trombone is a voice calling up from the streets, the tenor speaks of cafe’s and basement night clubs. On bass is Brendon Clarke who I know best from his association with the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra and tenor player Roger Manins. Lastly there is James Waples on drums. Another highly respected musician and one who regularly features in Nock lineups. This band is the business.
There are ten tracks on the album. Eight by Cody plus ‘I Love Paris’ (Porter) and La Javanaise (Gainsburg). I have heard Cody play ‘I love Paris’ a number of times and the way he voices it and swings puts me in mind of the mature Hampton Hawes (Clarke, Waples and Cody interact so well here). The title track ‘Not My Lover’ is fabulous, with its sensuous moody introduction overtaken by a lively fast-paced segment which dances and moves delightfully. It is not a big leap to imagine it as the soundtrack for one of those timeless gritty neorealist French movies. Laskowski and Cody stand out here. Lastly I must comment on Cody’s composition ‘For Satie’. Satie is variously described as the father of modernism, the first minimalist etc. Which ever way people choose to remember him, his avant-garde approach caused a seismic shift in music. In this piece Cody has respectfully captured his essence. Capturing Satie, a man of few notes and delicate sensibilities required good taste and deft touch. That is Cody in a nutshell. Below is the title track ‘Not My Lover’.
Chris Cody (piano, compositions), Karl Laskowski (tenor saxophone), Brendon Clarke (bass), James Waples (drums). – purchase from www.chriscody.com
Having reviewed the ‘Two Out’ album a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it – it was a certainty that I would enjoy the ‘Two Out’ live gig. Mike Nock and Roger Manins are rightly celebrated as being at the top of their game, but neither trades on reputation. Both approached this gig with humility. As they settled into the music you could feel the absorption; punctuated by occasional smiles when a particular phrase surprised them, often delighting at what fell under their fingers. At times they seemed to defeat the physical limitations of performance; simultaneously observing and creating. This is a Zen thing and it cuts to the heart of improvised music. Others noticed it as well; one musician said to me afterwards, “Man there was no ego on that bandstand and it was a beautiful thing to witness’. He was absolutely right. Most albums require careful planning, the ideas gestating over time, rehearsal upon rehearsal shaping the direction. Then there is the other type arising from happenstance. ‘Two Out’ arose out of a relaxed jam between friends. Manins was relaxing with Nock one January morning in Sydney when they decided to play a few tunes (as musicians often do when relaxing). What took their fancy were the often forgotten tunes, ‘the ones that our mothers used to sing’. As they worked their way through the tunes Nock suggested that they record; just for fun. Shortly after they ended up recording in the Sydney Conservatorium’s Verbruggen Hall. The hall contained a wonderful Fazioli grand piano much to Nock’s delight. It is our good fortune that ‘Two Out’ was performed last week for New Zealand audiences. Nock explained that they had actually recorded 16 songs, but the limitations of CD space required these being reduced to eleven. On Wednesday we heard a significant number of the tunes from the album plus a few that didn’t make the final cut. In particular there was a version of ‘Softly as a Morning Sunrise’ (Romberg/Hammerstein). A wild joyous free-flowing version which brought out the best in both musicians. At times gentle but at other times carrying the echoes of a boisterous 1930’s radio performance. At that moment, listening, I visualised my mother, leaning over an old upright Victrola and humming along happily. The other addition was ‘But Beautiful’ (Jimmy Van Heusen). An overwhelming sense of respect and intimacy was evident in their interpretation of that tune. It brought a smile to everyone’s lips. When friends like this collaborate it is profound …… but beautiful.
Two Out: Mike Nock (piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), The album is available from FWM Records. The Venue CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 23rd September 2015
The Mark Donlon trio gig gave us two leaders for the price of one. Accompanying Donlon was the highly rated LA bass player Tom Warrington. Jazz audiences in New Zealand are very familiar with Warrington as he toured here on many occasions. Donlon, originally from the UK is now living in Wellington and working as the Jazz Studies program leader at the New Zealand School of Music.
Donlon is a Post-bop pianist with a grab-bag of familiar standards and a number of original compositions at his fingertips. He is also adept at writing ‘contrafacts’; new tunes written over the changes of existing standards. While such practices are strongly associated with Parker or with innovative Post-bop improvisers, the practice actually dates from to 16th century. Some of the standards were reharmonised while he played others in familiar ways. It was a nice selection; including the song book standards ‘If I were a bell’ (Frank Loesser), ‘Darn that dream’ (Jimmy Van Heusen), ‘How deep is the ocean’ (Irving Berlin), ‘Quiet nights & quiet stars’ ( Tom Jobim) and Jazz standards like ‘Stolen Moments’ (Oliver Nelson) and ‘Nutty’ (Thelonious Monk). When I hear songbook standards by Berlin like’ How deep is the ocean’ or the equally engaging ‘Lets face the music and dance’ I am awe-struck. They are perennial in the fullest sense of the word and I hope that their star never wanes.I have been a Tom Warrington fan for many years and I have most of the Jazz Compass albums where he features to such great effect. He is a bass player who speaks with incredible forthrightness, but never undermining the others on the date. On ‘Corduroy Road’, a fabulous album that I play often, the ‘others’ I refer to are Larry Koonse and Joe Labarbera. These guys can do no wrong; their version of ‘You Must believe in Spring’ (Bergman/Bergman/Legrand) is a small masterpiece. We are lucky to have such a strong association with Warrington and Rodger Fox is the one to thank for that. I last saw him during the ‘Cow Bop’ tour, where his band shared the stage with guitarist Bruce Forman (and the Cow boppers). A friendly modest man of enormous talents and good company. When I spoke to him last Wednesday I learned that Larry Koonse (and perhaps Joe Lababera) will be touring New Zealand soon. Koonse has suffered health problems of late but he is evidently recovering well. Warrington’s recording credits are too numerous to mention. Tom is now domiciled in this country which is very good news.Cory Champion although Wellington based is no stranger to the CJC. He was there earlier in the year with Matt Steele’s ‘Master Brewers’. He writes and plays well and it is likely that we will see him in the drum chair often.
It is always good when proved right and in the case of Matt Steele I certainly was. This was a superb gig and it confirmed the promise that I saw in Steele as a first year student. The ‘Master Brewers’ musicians are exactly what Steele needed at this stage in his development and he is clearly what they needed. There is a cohesion about this group and it extends beyond the music. This is a band of friends and because they spend a significant amount of time together, they are able to dive deeper into the material on hand. Most of the band is writing and being familiar with each others styles, they contribute compositions that serve the project well. Younger musicians often favour shorter term projects but I hope this unit continues for a while. When I last saw Steele perform it was at his honours recital and he was very much in charge. Now as leader, the reins are subtly loosened and the music benefits from this. With experience, leaders can confidently guide without over playing the role. That only works when the interactions and cues become second nature. In their best moments the ‘Master Brewers’ acted as a single entity; everyone maximising their options while retaining an awareness of the others.I immediately noticed that Steele’s voicings were darker. His interesting harmonic approach an outcome of an ever-growing musical maturity. There are certain aspects to Steele’s playing that stand out and during the gig these crystallised in my mind. These attributes are why I follow his career so attentively. He is self-effacing by nature, but that masks a ruthless striving for betterment. Ever reaching further, listening deeply, critically and taking risks. For all that he able to relax into the moment and as he grows musically this is more evident. The most difficult journey for any musician is finding a distinctive style and owning it. Steele is well on the way.Thanks to Roger Manins programming, Auckland audiences get to see good Wellington bands every few months. In this case the audience were unfamiliar with the musicians (apart from Steele), but what a treat this gig was. The band won us over quickly and by the time the second set began they were cooking. In spite of the modernistic approach and complex time signatures these guys have a definite pulse. They swing like crazy.Ashton Sellars had suffered a mishap with his guitar and he had to borrow one at short notice for the gig. He told me that it felt very different to his own older instrument, but no one would have guessed it by the way he was playing. Under his fingers the instrument sang. He favours longer fluid lines (with a hint of Bauer/Tristano), but his is very much a modern sound. His improvisations are thoughtful and they invite you along. While their music is often complex there is no ballast of needless weighty intellectualism. Piano and guitar keeping nicely apart unless comping in support. Both understanding when to lay out. Once again cohesion and a sense of common purpose drives themJohnny Lawrence played upright bass, maintaining the core rhythm duties. While he held the pulse intact, he could also solo very effectively. Like his band mates he fitted into the mix in exactly the right way. Cory Campion was also a strong presence, often giving colour or providing accents. Above all his compositions were strong. There is an increasing trend for drummers to compose and when they write like this it provides an interesting perspective. Drummers write differently and the ones I hear lately, write very well. Steele and Sellars contributed the most tunes and each wrote in their own distinctive style. Together those charts and this band gave us pure enjoyment.
Master Brewers: Matt Steele (Leader, Piano), Ashston Sellars (guitar), Johnny Lawrence (bass), Cory Champion (drums) CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 8th July 2015
It has been a while since Julie Mason performed as leader. Mason is a pianist/vocalist who over the years taught and influenced a number of younger musicians. After a difficult few years battling health issues she has now started performing again and her new project titled: ‘compositions by piano playing Jazz Musicians’ is what she brought to the CJC. Most of these tunes are not standards in the American song-book sense and so they often lack wider recognition. That’s a pity because the tunes written by these musicians are some of best to come out of the last 90 years. It is always good to delve into this material. A perfect example of a composer/performer who deserves wider recognition is Enrico Pieranunzi. He is all too often overlooked outside of Europe. This formidable Italian improviser has performed with artists like Charlie Haden, Art Farmer, Kenny Wheeler, Chet Baker, Jim Hall and dozens of others. His output stands favourably when compared to the finest of the American Jazz issues. Of particular note is ‘Live in Paris’ and ‘Don’t forget the Poet’. The latter is a tribute to Bill Evans. Mason performed the title track from that album beautifully. She captured the lyrical quality of the piece.she has performed with these musicians for many years; Lance Su’a (guitar), Alberto Santarelli (bass) and Frank Gibson (drums). Her partner, the well known Jazz Pianist Phil Broadhurst sat in while Mason did a vocal number. The set list was split between vocals and instrumental pieces. The number Broadhurst accompanied her on was the fabulously evocative ‘The Peacocks’ (Jimmy Rowles/Norma Winstone). It is one of those tunes that is so aligned to Evans and Rowles that musicians tend to shy away from it. That’s a pity in my view: it was nice to hear it performed live. Other artists featured as sources were Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Billy Childs and Jacky Terrason.
Spammerz is a fascinating group and there is an interesting conceptual approach underlying their ethos. The quartets approach to improvisation is organic; more than might than might be supposed at first encounter. What they play is familiar but at the same time intangible. Constant organic shifts occur underneath the momentum and these apparent contradictions are not accidental. The music while eminently danceable is remarkably free of constraints; there is form, but it is not always fixed. The music has groove but it is cleverly purged of the familiar licks and hooks that usually inform groove music. There are interesting dynamics but these are not based upon loudness or showy pyrotechnic displays. It is ambient, but not in the accepted sense. It is enjoyable.
The leader of the quartet Dan Sperber once described his compositions as ‘unterhaltungsmusik’ (easy listening). This tongue-in-cheek description belies the reality and it hints at his quirky approach to writing charts. Background music was certainly not what the CJC or Golden Dawn audiences heard. They either danced happily or sat mesmerised as the friendly grooves filled the room. Perhaps ‘trance music’ comes closer? This opens up an interesting conversation about the many forms of ‘ambient’ music being explored at present. These forays are mainly by musicians on the improvised and experimental music scenes. Along the way the term ‘ambient’ is garnering new meanings and it can no longer be confined to the vernacular definition. It implies subtly, depth and a strong sense of being coupled to wider sensory experiences. The difference being that the senses catch on silken threads and not on steel shackles. There is also an illusive quality to this music and to understand the genre better, a good starting place would be Miles Davis ‘In a Silent Way’ or Brian Eno and Jon Hassell (‘Fourth world volume one, possible musics’). For an up to the minute vantage point go to YouTube and locate Elvind Aaset and Jan Bang’s ‘And Poppies from Kandahar’. Unlike ‘easy listening’ there are deep emotions engaged by this type of music. Like all trance music cunning voodoo tricks draw you in and as you relax into the mesmerising grooves, you fall deeper into the web. This is music evoking mental pictures and imaginary worlds. This is music that is often served up with dissolving visual images accompanying a clip. The filmic qualities are inescapable.
The Spammerz band is Dan Sperber (guitar), Alan Brown (Crumar keyboard), Ben McNicoll (saxophones) and Jason Orme (drums). Because the musicians have been experimenting and playing with the grooves, the music is constantly evolving. The CJC gig was great, but the Golden Dawn gig just a few nights later was even better. Alan Brown is an asset to any unit and especially so when you consider that this is a crossroads between ambient and groove (both specialties of Browns). Ben McNicoll is a strong presence and his reading of these shifting grooves is always apposite. It is nice to hear such bluesyness purged of cliche. Jason Orme is a veteran of the groove scene but he sounds great in any situation. Spammers music calls for a tight groove but there is also a need for subtlety. Orme is more than up to the task. The leader Dan
The leader, Dan Sperber is best known for his role in ‘New Loungehead’ and the ‘Relaxomatic Project’. In spite of having such strong band mates on this project he is centre stage. His disarmingly quiet persona belies a strength of purpose. A nice guitarist with interesting things to say. In the same week that Spammerz appeared at the CJC Alan Brown released his ambient album ‘Silent Observer‘. This album has long been anticipated. Anyone who knows Brown will be aware of his longtime interest in the works of the new Scandinavian ambient improvisers. Trumpeters like Arve Hendriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer, Guitarists like Arvin Aaset, vocal innovators like David Sylvian or Sidsel Endresen and electronics wizards like Jan Bang. This is a new frontier open for wider exploration. These artists draw huge audiences in Europe and increasingly audiences from beyond that continent.
While Brown has laid down more soul-filled grooves than most, he is also capable of thinking outside of the square. The concept of this project was clear when he sat down at the lovely Steinway D piano in the Town Hall Concert Chamber. Creating gentle music that is unconfined. This is spontaneous composition informed by place, by the moment, the artists vision and the instrument. With ambient music the spaces between the notes are where much of the music lies. These are like shared dreamscapes and a stream of mental images flows through the mind as we participate.
There is an oversupply of unsubtle loud incessant music cluttering up cyberspace and it is all too easy to forget the importance of silence and subtlety. This music is best enjoyed through headphones or at night in a quiet room. Ambient music is not background music, but the sounds we have forgotten to hear. A child’s heartbeat or the rustle of a tree are the most ancient of ambient sonic archetypes. This album reminds us that hearing is selective and when we enable it as deep as the ocean.
While the piano paints gorgeous motifs there are often subtle synth textures underpinning the pieces. The judicious use of synth adds to the sense of wistfulness while not detracting from the piano. There are also samples folded into certain tracks and these are perfectly chosen. The Robert Graves poem (read by Dylan Thomas) and the whisper-quiet polyglot prayers in 40 languages serve the the project well.
Headland Glow: Alan Brown/Silent Observer –
Spammerz – Dan Sperber (guitar), Alan Brown (Crumar Mojo keyboards), Ben McNicoll (tenor saxophone), Jason Orme (drums). Gigs at CJC (Creative Jazz Club) & Golden Dawn 6th & 10th May 2015
Silent Observer – Alan Brown (Steinway D Piano, Synth) – purchase the album from Alan Brown.co.nz
Mark Isaacs is an important and highly respected Australian musician and it was a pleasure to see him in Auckland again. It was October 2013 when he last visited and since then he has been busy with the presentation of his symphony and a number of other noteworthy projects. He is a celebrated Jazz and classical musician and he continues to excel in both genres. Musicians like this are rare, as the two disciplines require very different approaches. When you talk to Isaacs you realise that he is passionate about both. He respects the art forms far too much to settle for anything less than his best. In either genre.
I once recall naively asking a visiting musician whether the ability to perform at the highest level on an array of difficult instruments was a unique skill. I have never forgotten the answer. “No it’s the outcome of hard work and an exponential increase in practice time. Every instrument you play is practiced equally and intensively’. I am certain that the same would apply to working across different genres. That said, I suspect that attitude and aptitude are still somewhere in the mix.
Nothing annoys musicians more than being told that what they do is the result of a gift. It implies that the results come easily to them. Having great chops is only the starting point, as there is more to a successful Jazz musician than technique. Deep level communications are necessary and for a performance to work well, everyone must connect. Musician to musician and musicians to audience. Having something original to say and saying it well is something Mark Isaacs understands. Those performing at this level bring something unique to the equation. Something of themselves. An essence drawn from experience and an intuitive understanding of how time works. No matter how good a pianist, bass player or drummer, a piano trio is still a collaboration. Isaacs must have been happy with Holland and Samsom. They are two of our best musicians.
Isaacs comes from an exceptional musical family with a lineage stretching back to the Stephane Grapelli band and probably beyond that. Knowing the depth of his classical and Jazz heritage gives an added perspective to his multifaceted career trajectory.
I missed the first few numbers and arrived at the CJC just as the trio were warming up. The first number I heard was Kenny Dorham’s ‘Blue Bossa’. A much-loved standard that has remained extremely popular. Good improvising musicians extract gold from compositions like this (and often without needing to deviate far from the traditional chart). This was a night of wonderful standards played to perfection. Hearing a superb pianist and a solid rhythm section performing in such an intimate space is something Jazz fans live for. Everyone there experienced the warm glow. A warmth that only nights like this can impart. I truly wish Isaacs lived a lot closer. My appetite for his playing is far from being satisfied. My late arrival was due to a previous gig and as I walked in, the sound enveloped me completely. Before I had settled Ron Samsom had grinned in my direction, Oli Holland had poked out his tongue and Mark Isaacs had given a quick wave (mid solo). With those brief gestures the realisation swept over me that this club and these musicians are family. A. J. a club regular grabbed me in the break and said tongue in cheek, “Thank god your here man, the universe has realigned”. Ron Samsom the drummer added, “Yeah it took us a while to settle because there were two strangers in YOUR chair and you were nowhere to be seen”. I guess I am like the guy who lives perpetually on the bar stool of his local bar. Sort of Jazz furniture.
A performance of Mark Isaacs ‘Symphony’ has been professionally filmed and it was recently purchased by the ‘SKY Arts’ channel. It plays in New Zealand on the 10th June at 8pm. Please support this important work by watching and perhaps writing to SKY Arts and saying how much we appreciate seeing material like this (The same for the recent Mike Nock/Contemporary Dance film on SKY Arts). These are important artists and landmark events. We live in a crass market-driven world where the Philistines try to dictate our taste. Without our support these amazing artists can struggle for wider recognition. Writing to encourage the purchase of such films is the least we can do by way of thanks. Remember, this works best as a collective enterprise and all of us have a role to play in this.
What: Mark Isaacs Trio – Mark Isaacs (piano), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).
When the luck runs your way, an interview with a musician will mysteriously transform itself into something more. If you know how to read the signals and respond appropriately, you find yourself traversing musical galaxies; places where words and musical ideas merge. I was acutely aware of this when I interviewed Jonathan Crayford recently. He is the ideal person to spend time with if you like to explore the improbable connections between seemingly unrelated things. It was an interview where the rhythms of the moment guided what we discussed and the best part of a day flew by before I knew it. This cerebral world is where Crayford prefers to live. He is perpetually on the road, dreaming up and shaping musical projects as he goes. His life is truly the troubadour’s life. As I probed him for insights, one episode in particular threw light on how serendipity and happenstance can guide him.
While living in Paris a few years ago, he reached the conclusion that the time had come to move on. Around this time he met a Catalan photographer and she invited him to perform at a Catalonian arts festival. When he asked how well it paid, she replied that they had no budget, but offered him a jar of marmite. Impulsively he packed up his belongings and moved to Spain. That began a fruitful creative collaboration that led to the photographer and Crayford doing gigs together in a number of European cities like Vienna.I asked him why this type of project drew him so strongly. “I’ve been travelling for years and it’s the excitement of new projects and the risks associated with being in unfamiliar places that lures me. I like being in a new place, an exotic place, somewhere outside of my life’s experience. It is like a rebirth. New loves, new sounds new smells, new food and a new vantage point from which view life. The grist of creativity comes directly out of this”.
I had recently attended his concert at the Te Uru Waitakere Gallery where he was one of the featured artists in the ‘Black Rainbow’ concert series. I asked him about that and the carved piano, but as we talked the topic shifted to his quest for the perfect piano. His sense of reverence when talking pianos was palpable and he needed no encouragement to elaborate. “The acoustics of the room worked well for solo piano and the instruments bones are high-end Steinway. Here is a paradox though; the musician in me is always uncomfortable with carved or painted pianos. I understand that this is a wonderful piece of art, but the piano is already the ultimate piece of furniture. It is perfect in form and highly functional. Any alterations or adjustments should serve the sound.
Pianos sing for me and I can hear when pianos are sad. I feel their sadness and work with it, but it still troubles me”.
He talked of pianos so reverently and I wanted more on this topic, so I asked him about some of his favourite types of piano; the special ones. “I find the Australian made Stuart & Sons piano extremely interesting. With such a presence of upper harmonics you really need a different approach to playing. That was my impression of the one I played. A wonderfully crafted instrument. A few months ago I travelled to Australia to meet up with Barney McAll who is back from New York. He is currently artist in residence for a year, having been awarded a Glanville-Hicks residency. They have a custom made Stuart & Sons piano there. It’s a wonderful instrument. Of course I love the high-end Steinways, Bosendorfers and Fazioli. I have also played a wonderful Schimmel.
(Note) The Stuart & Sons Piano is innovative, a breakthrough in mechanical design. The piano has more keys and possesses amazing harmonic accuracy at the high end. No one has managed to change the acoustics and range of a piano in a very long time. Many pianists who have played the instrument claim that Stewart and Sons have done just that.
I couldn’t resist teasing this theme out further; wanting his reaction to a strange story of piano destruction, so I asked. “I recently saw a short film of a man playing a nice Steinway piano beside the Red Sea. ‘Red Sea, Dead Sea’ it was called and I suppose it was an allegory for the conflict in the Middle East. After five minutes a hooded man appeared out of nowhere and started smashing the piano with a sledgehammer. What do you think of artists who smash a piano to make a political statement?”
”A momentary look of surprise crossed his face as he pondered on what I’d said. “What is that destruction shit about man? I just don’t get it. The point of a piano is to be played and played well. Played by someone who understands what a piano is about. I once saw a pianist slowly, respectfully and carefully dismantling a piano at a concert. As each piece was removed he would tap it or pluck it. Each section had a very distinct sound, a note, resonance. This was a deconstruction, but I understood that because it was an exploration of the instruments capability, not an act of wanton destruction. That piano was still singing. That particular act of dismantling was a musical chart”.
Smashing pianos for political ends is definitely not Crayford’s thing.
During the afternoon we traversed everything from Pythagoras to planetary formation. The relationship between harmonic intervals and physical objects was especially fascinating to him, as was higher mathematics. “I will compose a piece based upon prime numbers one day”, he said. He also talked of constructing a new ‘mode’ map. His love for stories about quirky historical characters and for mathematics came together in his latest album ‘Dark Light’. ‘Galois Candle’ tells of a hapless mathematical genius and his struggle for recognition. The poignancy of the tale is reflected in every note. I have heard this played in a trio setting and solo. It is sublime either way.
Crayford’s ‘Dark Light’ album was a finalist in the New Zealand 2015 Vodafone music awards. The album is simply stunning and it deserves to be heard more. Crayford feels that the album has legs and he hopes that it has a way to run yet. These days it is not the quality of the music, but distribution and exposure problems that hold an album back. This album certainly deserves wider recognition.On April 15th Crayford returned to the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), but this time without bass or drums. The gig was billed as ‘solo piano’ with special guest. Roger Manins joining him for the final numbers of the second set. This was a first for the CJC as the club has never hosted a solo piano gig before. Interestingly a slightly higher entry fee was placed on the door, but far from deterring people it signalled that something special was to occur. You could have heard a pin drop during the performance. This audience really listened and they were amply rewarded for their attentiveness. This highlights the growing sophistication of CJC audiences and above all it demonstrates the deep respect that we have for Crayford as a performer.
I have seen Crayford perform many times and his approach to performance is to step free of ego. He described it to me as ‘diving into the sound’. Crayford treats performance like a Zen monk treats a ‘Koan’. His musical puzzles are not solved by wrestling with them, but by absorption, by letting go. Living in a musical moment devoid of superficial baggage. While a modernist in his approach, he also touches upon something timeless. Perhaps Crayford is best described as a cosmic troubadour?
Solo performances are high wire acts and the freedom afforded by the format allows an artist to take us where they may. We heard probing thoughtful interpretations of seldom-heard Jazz compositions, original pieces and compositions from unlikely sources. One moment we were at the edge of the modern classical repertoire and at other times following the fabulous, choppy, stride-infected swing of Monk. Nothing sounded out of place and everything was explored with the same vigour. Crayford’s environmentally referencing composition ‘Earth Prayer’ was simply profound. The musical narrative enveloped us in its utter clarity. Such was its impact that time stood still while audience, piano and artist seemed to breathe as one.The duo numbers with Roger Manins also worked well. These are master musicians and they know how to make the most of freedom and space. When a piano and tenor saxophone perform in duo, certain unique opportunities arise; the musicians must be acutely aware of nuances and the subtleties of interplay. What we heard was a deftly woven tapestry of sound, a respectful satisfying interaction. The duos started with a burner and ended with the perennial favourite ‘The ‘Nearness of You’ (Washington/Carmichael). During the last number there was a flood of noise from the upstairs bar. In spite of that the audience yelled for more; wishing that the gig could go on for ever.
(Part Two of this post to be posted later)
Who: Jonathan Crayford (piano) – guest Roger manins
Where: Interview in Waitakere – Solo Piano gig at the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland 15th April 2015 – Solo Piano, Te Uru Waitakere Gallery.
When I saw that pianist Chris Cody was coming to New Zealand I immediately recognised the name. For a moment I couldn’t fill in the blank spots of memory but I sensed that the connection was both Australian and international. My CD collection is huge and I knew that the answer lay buried somewhere in the unruly muddle of music lying about the house. Then it came flooding back; Cody recorded a great ‘Chris Cody Coalition’ album in the nineties. The first international Jazz NAXOS recording titled ‘Oasis’ and produced by Mike Nock; an innovative exotic project brimming with warm middle eastern influences. Some quick research told me that the Chris Cody Coalition was still an entity and what equally excited me was to see the name Glenn Ferris on several of the albums credits. ‘Oasis’ featured the Australian Trombonist James Greening and on several of the later Coalition albums Cody features trombonist Ferris (an utterly distinctive player). His whispers, growls and smears are at times otherworldly, but also mysteriously human. Cody works especially well with trombone players and his writing reflects this on the latest album.
I trawled the Paris Jazz clubs in the nineties and recall seeing Ferris perform. Later I picked up an album by Henri Texier ‘Indians Week’ and loved it. Ferris has appeared on 179 albums; everyone from Stevie Wonder (‘Songs in the key of life’), to a co-led album with Chico Freeman and an Archie Shepp album (‘Meeting’). The new Chris Cody Coalition album ‘Conscript’ is enjoyable from start to finish. An accessible album that bathes you in warmth and light. There is real intimacy about the recording, a feeling that you are in the front row and this is as much about Cody’s writing skills as the strong confident performances. It is also about the recording quality which is superb. I strongly recommend this album. I first heard the quartet at the Tauranga Jazz Festival. A CJC Jazz stage showcased the finale and the Jazz Tui Awards presentation. I spoke to Cody in a break and quickly learned that he had New Zealand blood running in his veins. Born in Australia of Kiwi parents he studied music before moving to Paris. Based there ever since and gaining a strong reputation on the wider scene. He has very recently move back to Australia but he intends to return to Paris to work periodically.
It is the diversity of life experience that makes for interesting Jazz musicians and Cody has the aura of Paris cool about him. While he often draws on very American sources like Jamal, he is also in the mould of pianists like Jacky Terrasson (also a Parisian). Cody’s compositions are well thought out and replete with interesting asides. We heard many of these at the CJC and the album ‘Conscript’ is all originals. I am a sucker for a Cole Porter tunes and when he opened with ‘I love Paris in the springtime’ I couldn’t have been happier. Happy because I love the song and above all happy because the quartet played it so well. I have posted a video of the CJC performance and the title track from the ‘Conscript’ album with Ferris (the latter an official video release). His pick up band are the familiar and popular Roger Manins (tenor), Oli Holland (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums). In the rush of the Tui awards there was little time to rehearse, but it didn’t show. This is 3/4 of DOG and they are the 2015 Jazz Tui winners after all.
Who: Chris Cody Quartet – Chris Cody (piano), Roger Manins (tenor sax), Oli Holland (bass), Ron Samsom (drums).Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart 1885, Auckland, New Zealand, 8th April 2015 #jazzapril #jazzappreciationmonth http://www.jazzapril.com
Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller and Errol Garner can install a smile on your face in two jaunty bars. It is the same with Wellington’s ‘The Jelly Rolls’. Waller and Garner are widely loved but seldom imitated; probably because what they do is extremely difficult. The original recordings also stand up so well that mere clones would be a redundancy. The Jelly Rolls have achieved something special by locating the spirit of this cheerful Harlem Stride influenced music; achieving this through a clever synthesis of the leading stylists. For good measure they have thrown in a touch of the more modern Ahmed Jamal and a pinch of Oscar Peterson. This is the sound of joy, wild unbounded exuberance.
In recent years there have been surprisingly few attempts to honour this era. A Jazz historian once described Garner as a happy footnote; a blip aside from the mainstream. He was correct in one sense, as there is no Errol Garner school of pianism. While that is less true of Waller the extent of their influence remains strangely allusive. Great pianists can influence those who follow in subtle and various ways, but it often requires the fullness of time for their real influence to become evident. A just released album ‘All Rise’ by the very modern pianist Jason Moran honours ‘Fats’ and names him as a prime influence. This is a post millennial interpretation and speaks in an engaging contemporary voice. Some years ago a famous and well respected pianist took a different and traditionalist tack. Although eminently qualified to tackle such a tribute, the album somehow fell short. I have often puzzled at that. When approaching ‘Fats’ Waller and especially Garner, the first requisite is having the chops. The second requisite and perhaps the most important, is knowing when to subvert any sense of reverence and reach for the Joy. This is not music for a dry piano-roll type transcription.
The Jelly rolls did something special here; they effortlessly took us back to the era of rent parties and speakeasies. To a time when a pianists left hand worked harder than the ‘hoofers’ in the room. The fact that pianist Ben Wilcock’s braces kept falling to his elbows added to the illusion. It made us feel like we were watching a Willie the Lion or a ‘Fats’Waller; something redolent of a hat tilted at an impossibly dangerous angle or a chewed cigar barely surviving the banter. On bass was Dan Yeabsley, finding ways round that powerful walking left hand on piano and yet still holding the centre. On drums was John Rae the iconoclast, playing the old style two-beat rhythms on brushes and sticks as if born to it. The same Rae we know to be madly expressive. The same Rae for whom no complex subdivision of time is out-of-bounds. Here he was, working the gig like an old school drummer (that huge grin still intact). All three were magnificent but Wilcock’s piano work must get the grand prize. When post-bop practitioners like these pull out such performances a truth’s revealed. Experienced, tasteful and talented Jazz musicians can tackle almost anything and do it well.
During the second set, Auckland’s premier tenor saxophonist Roger Manins came to the band stand. You could see that he was hungry for a piece of this magic and he shone. Manins always amazes and he had somehow adjusted his embouchure to give out a full-bodied era-appropriate sound. We were also impressed when Yeabsley put down his bass and played a sweetly melodic baritone saxophone. After a good sampling of Waller, Jamal, Ellington and Garner, the Jelly Rolls rounded things off with ‘The Sheik of Araby/I’ve got a New Baby’. Just perfect.
There is an inescapable sense of fun about this trio. They swing like crazy and they radiate mischief. This is especially evident as they shuffle together a few era appropriate licks. The Jelly Rolls album “Sneaky Weasel’ can be purchased from the site below.
What: The Jelly Rolls – Ben Wilcock (piano), Dan Yeabsley (bass), John Rae (drums).
Any mention of Quebec catches my attention as I really like that part of Canada, so when I learned that a highly rated Montreal piano-trio was coming to town I knew that it would be a good experience. I had not encountered the Emie Roussel Trio before, but a quick glance at the accolades they have garnered and the numerous You Tube clips that have sprung up over the past year, gave me all the information that I needed. The group had attracted particular attention at the Montreal Jazz Festival and from what I saw online, deservedly so.
Montreal is a Jazz city and I rate it highly. It is easy on the eye, friendly, laid back and intensely focussed on the arts. During a recent visit I spent my nights in its Jazz clubs and bars. As many as I could cram into an Autumn week; anywhere featuring improvised music. It was not the time of year to catch The Montreal Jazz Festival, so I got to see local bands like ‘Park X’ and the ‘Carl Naud Quartet’ at ‘L’OFF Jazz Festival’. As you move about that city, the familiar and the exotic coexist at every street corner. I came to realise that this almost subliminal familiarity was the manifestation of a spiritual kinship. The sort that exists between certain special cities, a connection that is not about trade, mayoral visits or geography; a connection of musical and artistic synergies. The Emie Roussel Trio are part European and part American in aesthetic. They are wholly Montreal. Their music has a pulse and a vibe which draws on european classical music traditions and the deep earthy Jazz grooves that arose from the American continent. In the hands of improvisers like Roussel these influences communicate a universal language. As the pieces unfold there is a sense that this band works as an organic whole. What we heard was tight and full of vibrancy or as a musician I spoke to during the break put it. “We are hearing the result of rehearsal, dedication to a project, discipline and road time”. While I love the free-flowing loose feel of New Zealand improvising bands, I must acknowledge that we seldom hear trio’s which sound like this.
The set-list was a selection from the trio’s recent albums with a few tunes from her new album in the mix. All of the compositions and arrangements were by the leader Emie Rioux-Roussel. Her compositions are well thought out and adventurous; taking sudden twists and turns, but never losing sight of the momentum and the inner logic. The segments are pieces of a puzzle placed by very skilful hands. As significant as her piano chops are, it was her work on keys that reeled me in. She quickly dug in on the Korg, carving out intense and deeply pleasing grooves with her left hand. The tasteful flurries from her right opening up the possibility of a million directions, all worth taking; her voicings felt original and warm as the summer breeze. This was an altogether funkier feel and as the beats reflected the changed mood the electric bass thumped out lines that danced in your head. The bass player Nicolas Bedard and drummer Dominic Cloutier never faltered. They wove in and around the tunes with consummate skill and were the perfect interpreters of Roussel’s music. These men are versatile and skilled and whether on brushes, sticks, upright or electric bass, they knew exactly what would serve the music best. The second set brought us an added treat as the Kiwi trumpeter Lex French came to the bandstand. I have long rated French as one of our finest trumpeters. He completed his studies in Montreal and was already well acquainted with several of the band members. His addition changed the pace once again, opening the way for harder blowing. As the sets progressed the constantly evolving moods worked well for them, giving the gig real breadth. The trio’s recent album ‘Transit’, includes many of the numbers heard on the tour but with one significant difference; The inclusion of a string section, the ‘Quatuor St-Germain’ and a percussionist Julie Quimper. Roussel’s charts in the hands of this larger ensemble are very different to the trio. I particularly like her compositions like ‘L’ attente du chat’ and ‘La timbale et la fourmi’. The mood of the ballad is cat-like in its grace and time feel. The latter, a delightful shape-shifter of a piece full of contrasts and propulsion. I look forward to the new album which is just the trio but with some Rhodes tracks as well as piano.
I hope that they came back one day as this is a band well worth keeping tabs on.
Who: The Emie Roussel Trio – Emie Rioux-Roussel (piano, keys), Nicolas Bedard (contrabasse), Dominic Cloutier (batterie).
Steve Barry recorded his new ‘Puzzles’ album back in February and after his very successful first album ‘Steve Barry’, there were high expectations for its successor. In ‘Puzzles’ Barry has returned to the winning combination of Alex Boneham on bass and Tim Firth on drums and he could hardly have done otherwise. When musicians work this well together and have more to say, the journey should continue. While essentially a trio album, the gifted alto saxophonist Dave Jackson joins them for three numbers. There is a sense of shared vision here as the four have worked together extensively. While familiarity can sometimes breed complacency there is none of that in ‘Puzzles’. The communication between band members is intuitive, but there is an element of surprise and freshness about the interactions. All of these musicians are at their peak and while they impress deeply, there is no escaping the fact that it is the strength of compositions that gives this album its edge.
Barry’s life is an extremely busy one. He is in the final stages of his doctrinal studies (focussing on composition) and he gigs regularly around Australia and New Zealand. Last year he won the prestigious Bell Award and was the runner-up at Wangaratta. Guiding his impressive work ethic is more than just academic or professional considerations; he possesses a deep quest for knowledge. If you follow Barry’s physical travels you understand something of what motivates him. He is never a casual tourist. His engagement with and questioning of the world about him informs his work. The compositions in ‘Puzzles’ reflect this as they are carefully crafted improvisational vehicles, complimentary in relation to each other but clearly reflecting the learnings gained by Barry along the way. The sound quality on the album is also superb and the album nicely presented. ‘Puzzles’ was recorded at the ‘Pughouse Studios’ in Melbourne by Niko Schauble and the cover design is Barry’s.
I saw Barry on his way through Auckland to perform in Queenstown. Reports from that gig were positive and over the week he worked his way back to Auckland’s CJC, where he performed with Roger Manins on tenor, Cameron McArthur on bass and Ron Samsom on drums. The CJC band are highly rated musicians, but you inevitably get a different feel from any band less familiar with the material. While the numbers on the album sound effortless, the charts are obviously complex. We heard many cuts from the album and a few new numbers that have not yet been recorded. In the past Barry’s compositions tended to favour a degree of density, but many of his new tunes have a lighter feel. They are probably just as complex but like all evolving musicians Barry is mastering the art of making the complex sound simpler. It would be hard to pick between the tracks on ‘Puzzles’ but for beauty and emotional depth I like ‘Forge’ and for groove the fabulous ‘Heraclitus Riverbed’ (anything involving the ancient philosopher Heraclitus draws me in). It was interesting to compare Manins (live) with Jackson (on the album). Manins on tenor was the passionate story-teller while Jackson on alto has a drier sound and evokes the feeling of an intrepid pugnacious explorer.
After listening to him live and replaying the album for days on end the conclusion is inescapable; Barry is a major talent on an upward trajectory. I would urge people to hear him live when the opportunity presents itself and above all to support his art by buying the albums.
The Album: ‘Puzzles’ – Steve Barry (piano, rhodes), Alex Boneham (bass), Tim Firth (drums), Dave Jackson (alto saxophone). www.stevebarrymusic.com
The CJC Gig: Steve Barry (Piano), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Cameron McArthur (bass), Ron Samsom (drums) on the 29th October 2014 www.creativejazzclub.co.nz
When you listen to Matt Steele, you quickly realise that he is in the middle of an interesting musical journey. In a trio setting, there is not an ounce of hesitation about him, no sense that he is micro-analysing his performance; he plays for the joy of it. This in-the-moment absorption has moved his playing to another level and best of all he carries the audience with him. While Steele is still in his honours year at the Auckland University Jazz School, it is obvious that gigging about town has added something extra to his performance. A wider awareness, an openness and a hunger for what is just out of reach. You can’t develop those attributes merely from formal lessons. The spade work for this ongoing development as an artist has been in the hands of competent teachers and foremost among those is Kevin Field. Although the club was dimly lit, I could make out Field sitting quietly in the audience; after the set he moved forward to congratulate Steele. There was an unmistakable look of satisfaction on his face.
As Steele sat at the piano and counted in the first number you were immediately aware of movement. Pianist, bass and drums, swaying and bending into the sound; moving as if governed by an unseen force. When musicians are able to sync to the rhythms, move to the ebb and flow of the music, it can enhance a performance. When a pianist moves well it is like watching a prize boxer; the keys stung by blows or else stroked teasingly. Not all pianists move like this as approaches to the instrument are many and varied. In this situation Steele was definitely more like Kenny Kirkland than Bill Evans.
Most of the set were original compositions by Steele, some new, some reworked. All sounded fresh, as an equal vigour infused the older numbers (like ‘Holy Moly’) and the newer ones (‘So Retitled’). Steele has brought several trios to the CJC and this time his band featured Richie Pickard on bass and Andrew Keegan on drums. His instincts were spot-on as Pickard and Keegan dug in and delivered for him. They worked well together and Steele’s insistence on approaching each gig as a democratic exercise worked. His second number (and probably the only non original) was a piece by Sun Ra. This was bound to please me, as I love Sun Ra in all his out-crazy glory. It was brave and it worked well as a trio piece.
The second set was the Alex Ward Trio. Ward (an Honours graduate from the NZSM) has been on a scene for a few years now and his Aero Jazz Quartet, formed over a year ago, often performs about town. He recently completed a stint on a cruise ship with Trudy Lile and reports from that gig were overwhelmingly positive. He is the Jazz Programme Coordinator for the NZ School of Music (Albany Campus) and involved in music Education in the private sector.
Wards set showcased interesting material. Some of the tunes he drew from lessor known Jazz sources, while his own compositions also featured. It was good to hear him playing Tigran Hamasyan’s ‘Leaving Paris’, an engaging waltz. It is from Hamasyans’s ‘New Era’ album and it is surprising that it is not heard more often. Ward executed this gently swinging piece perfectly. Another standout number was a tune by the Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock.
On bass was the always pleasing Eamon Edmundson Wells. He is a capable player able to shine in diverse settings. On drums was Ivan Lukitina-Johnston. I have only seen Johnston on two previous occasions and find his approach on traps thoroughly workman like. The one blight on the evening was the sound from a loud upstairs band which bled through into the quieter moments. It made counting-in and the quieter intros a challenge for the musicians.
Who: Matt Steele (piano), Richie Pickard (bass), Andrew Keegan (drums)
Who: Alex Ward (piano), Eamon Edmundson-Wells (drums), Ivan Lukitina-Johnson (drums)